December 06, 2018

Rethinking your office holiday party

‘Tis the season to be festive – but in today’s climate, companies are rethinking their traditional approach to holiday company gatherings. Here are some key things to consider.

Danielle Ng-See-Quan

Dani is the Managing Editor, Content Marketing at Ceridian.

The holiday office party is an opportunity for employers to show their appreciation for their employees, and for co-workers to come together to celebrate the holiday season.

However, companies are under even greater scrutiny with the #MeToo movement, political climate, and diversity and inclusion challenges, which has the potential to create a charged atmosphere. Some organizations are toning things down, or have even considered foregoing the event altogether to minimize potential issues or conflicts.

Simply cancelling the annual event isn’t necessarily the answer, because it’s an opportunity to reinforce culture, and recognize employees for their hard work. The important thing is to be mindful of keeping employees safe and minimizing risk, especially since failing to take proper precautions may result in significant liability. Here are some tips.

Consider alternatives to an evening event

The #MeToo movement has changed the atmosphere around company gatherings, and holiday parties are no exception. In fact, a survey from global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that 65% of companies plan to have a holiday party – the lowest number since 2009 – which the firm suggests could be due to potential liability following the #MeToo movement. Considering the heightened awareness around workplace misconduct, companies are increasingly considering alternatives to the traditional holiday party.

A Randstad survey found that, when it comes to how employers celebrate the holidays in the workplace, philanthropic initiatives and charitable giving are high on employees’ lists. In this vein, some companies are planning more low-key events that bring their employees together, such as spending an afternoon volunteering or working with a charity. As Jeff Kear, co-founder of event management software Planning Pod says via NBC News, “This not only places the focus of the party back on giving to others, but it also helps build team unity around a very worthwhile cause.”

Employers are also focusing more on activities that create “a level of camaraderie…that you don’t get at some typical holiday parties,” Ceridian’s Chief People and Culture Officer Lisa Sterling told the Toronto Star, such as smaller, department-based events, or going to an escape room.

Communicate expectations and set ground rules up front

It’s a good practice to encourage employees to exercise good judgement and common sense, and remind them that while the intention is to create a festive atmosphere, the party is ultimately a business event. So,  all company policies regarding employee behavior, including the employer code of conduct, will continue to apply. Typically, companies send this message well in advance of the party, in the form of an email from the leadership team with links to the company code of conduct and other applicable policies.

Some companies are being more creative and candid with their communications. The Wall Street Journal reported on one agency’s blunt memo sent to all its employees, outlining the difference between Stupid Fun (which leads to Regrettable Fun) vs. Responsible Fun: “’Unfortunately, Stupid Fun in the workplace often turns into Regrettable Fun the next day,’ the email read. ‘And Regrettable Fun has given rise to corporate phrases like ‘HR has received a formal complaint,’ ‘zero tolerance,’ and ‘fired for cause.’”

And digital publisher Vox sent an internal memo to its employees explaining why it wouldn’t have an open bar at its party last year: “We recognize that even though alcohol isn’t always the reason for unprofessional behavior, creating an environment that encourages overconsumption certainly contributes to it,” the memo said.

Track or limit alcohol consumption

Speaking of alcohol, most office parties serve it, and it is well recognized that its consumption can be a major contributor to employee misconduct. If alcohol is part of the plan, it makes sense to consider some proactive measures. 

For example, some companies set up a ticket-based system to track consumption and limit drinks per person (like the above example). If a ticket system isn’t feasible, consider setting parameters around how and when alcohol is served, such as only during certain time periods like dinner – or limit the type of alcohol served. On that note, don’t skimp on snacks – make sure there’s lots of food available.

Review policies – and remember that culture should be reinforced year-round

While the company holiday party is an opportunity to remind employees of company policies, it’s equally important that these practices happen all year long. If anything, challenges or issues that arise as part of planning the event can be a signal to employers to rethink their culture and policies going forward. – party if reflection of culture

For example, as noted by NBC News, harassment is a year-round problem. So, cracking down solely on the office party doesn’t address the larger issue, and employers should put the effort in to be accountable year-round. Wired previously reported on the drinking culture pervasive to the tech industry specifically, suggesting that it’s time for the industry to rethink its relationship with alcohol because of its potential to alienate non-drinkers and exacerbate existing tensions.

A successfully holiday party is really a reflection of a company’s culture, which is why it’s critical for employers to reinforce a safe, inclusive, and positive environment year-round.

“It’s tough to shift how people behave at holiday parties if there isn’t an overall culture of respect that’s communicated throughout the year,” Ceridian’s Sterling, told the Toronto Star.

Of Ceridian’s zero-tolerance harassment policy, she added, “We don’t look at it like a policy; it’s the way we function…We expect people to be treated fairly, with respect and in a way that is not hostile.”

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