Holiday Party Headache: To Host or Not to Host?

 

By Susan Milligan October 25, 2018
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​Planning holiday celebrations can be an annual headache for HR managers: Employees will grumble about being obligated to attend, complain that the company's money would be better spent on staff bonuses, wring their hands over finding baby sitters, and maybe engage in misbehavior or even sexual harassment after having one drink too many.

But if a company does not host a party, there will be complaints about that, as well.

"It's damned if you do, damned if you don't. You're never going to be able to please everyone," said Michelle Lee Flores, who is a partner with the Los Angeles law firm Akerman LLP and advises clients on holiday parties. "It's either, 'Gee, there's a lot of money being spent. I would prefer it [be spent] in some other way' or, alternatively, 'There's not enough money being spent [on the festivities].' "

There can be good reason to skip the energy and expense of an office holiday soiree: A 2017 study commissioned by multinational human resources consulting company Randstad found that 90 percent of employees would prefer an extra vacation day or a cash bonus instead of a party. A majority—62 percent—said they felt obligated to attend, with younger workers feeling more pressure than older workers to celebrate with colleagues.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

So should HR managers go to the trouble of planning a party? Yes, HR specialists and company executives say. But do it the right way. Here's their advice:

Get input from staff ahead of time. What kind of party do workers want, and when do they want it? Day or evening? Is it important to them that partners or families be included? "It all comes down to personal preference and asking employees—what do they really want?" said Brenda Stanton, vice president of Keystone Partners, a Burlington, Mass., career management company. "Start by acknowledging that not everyone loves the concept of holiday parties. Ask them for ideas about options outside the traditional holiday party, and be ready to hear the truth."  

Loni Freeman, vice president of human resources at public relations agency SSPR in Charlotte, N.C., recommends sending a survey to employees to find out what appreciation and recognition look like to them. "A holiday party done right can be a huge morale booster for staff and build memories," Freeman said. "A boring holiday party becomes a chore and actually lowers staff morale. Knowing your staff and what they want is the key."

Know your goal—is it team building or appreciation? Holiday parties can have a team-building element, but in general the focus should be on letting the staff unwind a bit and know that they are valued, experts said. "The employer should identify what it is trying to accomplish with a party. Offsite and fun experiences can be great, but there is a need to know your people and your culture," said Lynnette Holsinger, SHRM-SCP, president of the HR Florida State Council, a SHRM affiliate.

Or, you can combine those two goals: Roman Healthcare Group, a recruiting firm in Chattanooga, Tenn., enjoys a two-day holiday celebration hosted by CEO Greg Musto every year. The first night is a party, often with a dinner or show (last year employees enjoyed a cruise on the Tennessee River). The second night is an awards banquet. "Our associates not only love it, but they look forward to it, and [the party events] are very much team-building activities," Musto said.

Pay attention to potential pitfalls. If you have an after-hours party, will child care issues or commuting discourage people from attending? What about serving alcohol? Could inebriated guests misbehave or turn the party into a #MeToo case study? One idea is to have the event during the day, perhaps by hosting a fancy luncheon, HR specialists said.

Don't make it mandatory. Don't force workers to attend parties, but consider including significant others to encourage attendance. Chicago-based attorney Jeffery Leving said his staff sees the firm as an "extended family," and so he invites workers' relatives to holiday parties. "I could not have built a family-friendly law firm by excluding families from firm parties."

Don't expect a party to fix what went wrong in previous months. "While [workplace] holiday parties are a nice gesture and sign of employee appreciation, when it comes to larger corporate culture or employee engagement issues, they're essentially a Band-Aid solution," said HR specialist Diane Scheidler, senior director of team engagement at Achievers, a talent management software company. "If a company has an unhappy workplace or toxic culture, throwing money at a fancy holiday party won't make a difference in the long run."

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.  

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