The Dreaded Holiday Party…A Guide for Employees and Employers

Festive atmosphere“We can’t bring our spouses to this year’s holiday party!” a very close friend told me today.


“I don’t know,” she answered. “The holiday party is at 7pm this Thursday night up in the city. I really don’t want to go. I can’t bring my husband. It’s going to suck without him.”

“Yeah, I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t want to go either.”

Yesterday, I was having lunch with the CFO of my previous company. She started telling me about the upcoming holiday party at her current company.

“We are having a holiday party, and I am worried it isn’t going to go well.

The CEO wants to bring food in from Costco….”

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked.

“I am worried because the party is after hours at the company HQ. It’s employees only.” She paused for a second to gather her thoughts. “I think we are going to be viewed by the employees as cheap.”

Two close friends with two separate experiences, but with the same result: Something that should be positive for the employees and the company is about to turn into something really negative for both parties.

Does it have to be this way?

Ah, the dreaded holiday party dilemma.

You have to have one, don’t you? And, you need to spend a lot of money to do it right? Don’t you?

Or do you?

Holiday parties are really important events for employees AND management.

Why? More on that in a bit.

Back to the story about my friend with the holiday party in the city.

Ultimately, she decided to skip the party because it bothered her that she couldn’t bring her husband.

I asked her, “Are you sure you don’t want to go? You know the risk.”

She sighed. “Yes, I know the risk, but I just don’t want to go.”

What’s the risk for my friend?

Holiday parties, company picnics, and the like are allegedly not mandatory events. In reality, they're quite mandatory.

Whether you like it or not management keeps score:

  • Who came to the event?
  • Who didn’t come to the event?
  • Why didn’t the person come to the event?
  • Did you behave in an appropriate manner at the event? (In other words, did you get too drunk, say something disrespectful or inappropriate, or otherwise fail to conduct yourself professionally?)

Careers can be destroyed at a holiday party.

The employers have it just as bad:

  • Are we being too cheap, or…
  • Are we spending too much, or…
  • Should we even have a party?
  • Should we let spouses attend the party?
  • Should we serve alcohol?
  • Should we have an open bar?
  • If so, should we have drink tickets?
  • Should we provide rides home for employees who drink too much?

All this for a party that is supposed to build camaraderie and celebrate success.

Here’s the reality:

Company events are a huge part of the culture of any company.

A couple of examples:

The company I worked for in the 1990’s, Maxim Integrated Products, had a suite at San Francisco 49er football games. Senior executives and their spouses got invited to a couple of games each year.

It was a big deal.

The CEO went to many of the games, and it was a chance to socialize "outside of work". Make no mistake about it: this was work. Drink too much or yell too loudly and you would hear about it Monday.

People started abusing the privilege a few years into the practice. How? Some employees would give the tickets to their spouses and not show up. Well, the shit hit the fan on that one pretty quickly, and the CEO came down hard on the abusers. I don’t know if it affected the abusers' careers, but it sure didn't help them along.

Maxim also had very nice holiday parties. I didn’t go to the holiday party my first year at the company. My boss came up to me the week after the party, and he said, “Jack (the CEO) asked my why you didn’t go to the party. You really should go.”

Message received.

The boss was watching.

As I watch my daughter navigate her way through grade school, it strikes me the work environment isn’t much different from school. You either fit in with the group or you are an outsider.

It’s very difficult to progress in any company if you are an outsider.

Life has come full circle for me. I’ve been the CEO, and I know I’ve gotten to see the other side of the equation.

I can boil our holiday party thought process into one statement:

Have an event that is consistent with the company’s overall culture.

It’s that simple. For us it meant:

  • Have it at a nice venue. Not over-the-top, but nice. Fortunately, we had a secret weapon: my wife. She did all the planning for our parties; from finding the venue to selecting the wine and the menu, she was on top of it. She always does a fantastic job.
  • Please invite your significant other. It’s a great chance for me sing your praises.
  • Of course we will have an open bar. We believe in the employees. You always get the question about this and other rules: “What about someone who abuses the privilege?” The answer is “it is self-correcting.” Eventually, they will be found out, and they will correct their behavior or they will not be in the company.

Company events are an extension of work.   My direct reports and I were working even if it was a party:

  • Arrive before everyone else does. There is nothing worse then arriving to an empty room. We can’t let that happen. Once people get there…
  • We are the hosts and hostesses. Everyone is looking at us. We are the ambassadors of the company, so that means…
  • Work the room. We need to mingle, say hello to everyone and their significant other. Make sure the significant other knows how much you appreciate the work their partner is doing. This was my favorite part of the event. There is nothing more satisfying then speaking from the heart and watching the pride the significant other has for their partner.

You’d think these things are obvious, but they are not. Too many companies get it wrong too often! I hope your company gets it right.

Here’s to a great holiday season, and here’s to a great holiday party!

Oh, and here's to not drinking and driving! You'd think that one would be obvious too, but – again, sadly – it isn't.

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Photo: Depositphotos