If you haven't experienced a bad office party yet, you just haven't been in the workforce long enough. Give it some time. Eventually, you'll have that almost universal experience.
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It might not end up being the kind of cartoonish bacchanalia portrayed in movies and on television; it's unlikely anyone will puke in a potted plant or say something to get themself slapped. But it'll still leave you with a bad taste in your mouth – and maybe even a New Year's resolution to find a new job someplace far, far away.
"When it comes to holiday parties, it's usually not the best of the culture that gets reflected – it's the worst," says S. Chris Edmonds, the speaker, author, executive consultant, and company culture expert who runs The Purposeful Culture Group.
Bad holiday parties are rarely intentional – although Edmonds notes that there are some bosses who are more interested in stroking their own egos and showing off then in rewarding their employees for a good year. But for the most part, bad holiday parties are the result of bad company cultures, and few organizational leaders are even aware of whether or not their day-to-day cultures need fixing.
"I'm quoting from the TinyHR data from 2014 here: Only 21 percent of employees feel strongly valued at work," Edmonds says. "So if you're not feeling valued, why would you want to go to a party with your boss in his $1500 suit and $200 haircut? That's not going to feel good."
The long-term solution to bad holiday parties, then, is to fix the company culture – but 'tis already the season for celebration. What can organizations do in the immediate future to ensure that their parties don't end up demoralizing the very employees they are supposed to energize?
The key is putting a little effort into it.
"You have to be investing time and energy into [your parties]," Edmonds says. "You can't just throw them together."
Here are three ways to make sure the party you're throwing actually makes your employees feel good:
1. Emphasize Service to Others
One of the major causes of a bad holiday party is the "power and control" dynamic that plays out in so many offices.
"It's the insider/outsider thing that often happens," Edmonds explains. "Some folks get to sit at the boss's table, and some don't. Parties are great when everyone feels welcome, but the reality is that not everyone does."
For that reason, Edmonds encourages organizations to craft their holiday celebrations around the ideas of service and being of value to others.
"If you're going to take the time to craft a party that will just end up being stressful, just don't do it," Edmonds says. "Instead, have everyone go volunteer somewhere. Pay them for the day, and let them go serve others."
Edmonds shares an example from one of the companies he has worked with:
"The company would do a morning of food and celebration, and then for the afternoon, they gave everyone $100 in cash and told them to go buy something. At 4:00 p.m., you had to come back and tell everyone about what you bought.
"So some teams rented limos and went to lunch together. And some teams gave their money to charity and spent the afternoon sweeping up or something like that.
"Now, the company centers the whole thing around charity. They say, 'Here's $100, go give it to someone.' They'll send a check to any organization, as long as it's a legitimate charity."
If you still want to go the traditional office party route, Edmonds suggests setting it up so that the leaders of the organization serve the employees, as in this example from another client:
"They did a huge spaghetti feast. They had all the senior leaders in these big chef hats and big aprons, serving spaghetti to employees! They were sloppy, and they got stuff all over their aprons. That's an interesting bent, because it shows genuine appreciation, and a little silliness."
2. Be Sensitive to the Messages You're Sending
It's 2016. That means your organization probably includes employees from a variety of backgrounds. If you're going to throw a holiday party, you have to be very careful about that.
"For example, if you do a Christmas party, there's a segment of the population that will respond positively to that – and segment of the population that won't," Edmonds says.
The question organizations need to ask themselves, Edmonds says, is simple: "How do we do this without being stupid?"
"I don't know that organizations are very aware that they may be sending a lot of mixed messages or demeaning messages unintentionally," Edmonds says. "If you're going to have a party, you need to be really thoughtful about how you can make it as open as possible – and not drama-ridden."
Edmonds also notes that organizations should be vigilant about whether or not anything they're doing could be perceived as "poking fun" at an employee's identity or background.
"We have a tendency as Westerners to think that teasing will be embraced by everyone, but it can separate and point fingers at people," Edmonds says.
3. Careful Who You Honor!
In addition to being holiday time, the end of the year is often recognition time. Recognizing employees for jobs well done is a great idea, but employers need to be careful about who they recognize.
"Typically, what happens at these end of the year things is that you get folks who are awarded for being top salesperson, for example, but over the year they've been so bad and they've been screwing their buddies to win — so it's not very cool," Edmonds says. "So people are feeling like, 'Really? That's the guy you're sending to the Bahamas?'"
One good way to make sure you avoid accidentally rewarding bad behavior is by making your recognition dinners more team-centric. That way, instead of giving the backstabber a cruise – and thereby encouraging all your other employees to follow the backstabber's lead – you can give the whole team a reward and reinforce the importance of teamwork and cohesion.
Holiday parties have the potential to turn disastrous, but if you know what to look out for and what to encourage, you can create an event the whole office loves – except for maybe the backstabbers and the egotistical bosses.
But who knows? Maybe the winter festivities will show them the errors of their ways.