Kim Theobald

Director of HR Consulting

Holiday Headaches: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Holiday Party Planning

Planning holiday celebrations can be an annual headache for HR: 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 behavior that could be construed as 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. Company holiday parties can fall into the “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” category. When planning a party, understand that you’re never going to be able to please everyone. No matter that you plan, companies may get two kinds of feedback: 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.

So, should HR managers and company leaders 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? In the end, it all comes down to personal preference and asking employees what they really want. Start by acknowledging that not everyone loves the concept of holiday parties. Ask them for ideas about options outside the traditional holiday party but be ready to hear the truth. Some companies may choose to send 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. A “boring” holiday party may feel like a chore to some and can actually lower 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 say. 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.

Or, you can combine those two goals: some companies are now choosing to combine their holiday party with an awards recognition ceremony, for example.

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 an HR nightmare? One idea is to have the event during the day, perhaps by hosting a fancy luncheon.

Don’t make it mandatory. Don’t force workers to attend parties but consider including significant others to encourage attendance.

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 temporary solution. If a company lacks a strong culture, throwing money at a fancy holiday party won’t make a difference in the long run.

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