‘Tis most definitely the season to reconsider the traditional alcohol-driven, stumble-down, slap-on-the-back (or slap-somewhere-else) staff party.

Christmas is obviously a time for high spirits. But given recent harassment headlines and heightened sensitivity about appropriate behaviour in the workplace, are corporate leaders just asking for trouble by hosting holiday parties?

Party on, say I, although the savvy Ms. Santa probably wouldn’t phrase it that way.

Yes, it’s now a “holiday celebration” to reflect religious diversities. Possibly it has been scaled back to reflect budgetary constraints. It may be a more sober affair because of concerns about potential legal liabilities for the employer.  Still, most employees expect to be gifted some sort of social event as days shorten, the temperature falls and the end of the year draws near.

Call it what you will, the holiday party is a deeply-rooted tradition that goes beyond a curt offering of seasonal wishes, punch in plastic cups and veggie-and-dip platters. You can modify the offering from previous years but to cancel the event will convey strong negative signals to employees, no matter how you explain the decision.

The holiday party is a tangible way to show your appreciation of employees and the work they do

Think positive. The holiday party is a tangible way to show your appreciation of employees and the work they do. It can be an important reinforcement of camaraderie between workers and managers.  It can also have a therapeutic effect after an especially challenging year.

Perhaps more importantly, it’s an effective mechanism to send both clear and subtle messages from management teams. The party communicates corporate values. It can be used to set the tone for the coming year or to manage employee expectations.

If, for instance, cost-cutting has been the corporate mantra in the past 12 months, your party could be cheap and cheerful. Stress fun rather than flamboyance or frugality. You don’t need to pay Champagne prices to serve bubbly in glass flutes.

Scrap your traditional sit-down dinner and dance event for a Friday afternoon ice-skating happening or bowlathon. Hire a couple of instructors, provide music, and a buffet of good food and a variety of beverages.

On a budget? Creativity is the key to a good office holiday party

Creativity is key. Showcase your smarts. I know of an accounting firm that has its holiday blowout in January when they can book top venues at lower costs. Not only does that make fiscal sense (which they all get high on) but it helps tackle the post-holiday blues.

If your company is poised for major changes in the coming year – a reorganization of departments, or the introduction of performance reviews for instance — the party might have a fun team-building dimension to it. (Charades? Rock-n-roll trivia contest?) The activity should be fun. And voluntary.

The key is to tailor your event for staff, proving – once again – that you know your people. Don’t have a jazz trio for hip-hop crowd. Consider covering babysitter expenses or having a family-friendly party.

Spend some time thinking about how to put extra sparkle or significance into the event, especially if you have a lot of new employees or problems with turnover.  People remember the effort, even if it is a low-cost venture.

Take the party out of the office so employees will sense that the event is not routine. It is much easier to relax and have fun in special (or at least different) surroundings. One of my colleagues speaks very fondly of her first “Christmas office party” which was a catered dinner at her boss’s home.

Wherever the party is held, keep the office out of it. This means no speeches or conversations that involve critiques of the latest marketing plan or office gossip. Treat this as an opportunity to reveal that there is more to you than the position you occupy and allow the people you work with to be casual and comfortable enough to reveal aspects of their character or their interests that don’t show up in the workplace. “You build replica amusement parks in your basement?”

The CEO and members of the C-Suite should mingle extensively, sharing casual time with everyone, including those outside of their own teams. Their people will see them as personable, relaxed and responsive to different situations. And ready to take on whatever the new year brings.

 

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