Spend any number of years at an organization and you will know exactly when you can expect the invite. It’s different in every firm but there generally is consistency within the organization as to the time it’s sent out. It usually says something like “You are Invited!” in big bold letters. Underneath that you will have the details on where and when that year’s holiday party is going to take place.
For many professional’s there is a bit of an internal groan. I have often heard co-workers and colleagues ask the age-old questions “Why do they spend so much on this thing? Why don’t they just give us the money?”.
The answer to the question is easy. Organizations may be emotionless legal entities in and of themselves but they are made up of people. Most people want to recognize and engage in some form of holiday cultural norm.
Holiday parties are an easy way to do this in a structured and time honored way. It’s cost effective, safe, and meets the interpersonal holiday needs of the largest possible swath of people who make up the organization. In short it’s the lowest common denominator for holiday activities. The corporate Christmas party has probably been around for as long as corporations have, A proto holiday party is even a pivotal scene in the Dickens classic: A Christmas Carol”
Organizations are very different. Naturally holiday parties are very different as well and they take on many forms. I had seen them just consist of a simple meal with colleagues, usually lunch paid for by the boss or the corporation. I’ve also seen a party during work hours where the organization shuts down and everybody celebrates in the work-space or meets at some festive venue. These run the gambit from informal like a theme park to more formal like a private room at a very nice restaurant, hotel or Country Club. The more formal ones tend to take place at night. There are a lot of other variants. Regardless of whether the holiday party is sandwiches at the local Deli with just the team or a six course meal at a five star hotel with spouses dressed in there formal best, there are some things that all of these holiday gatherings have in common.
The first time a new employee goes to the holiday party it may be interesting and fun. Unfortunately holiday parties are procedural and have their own sense of ritual about them just like other interactions in the professional environment. That can make them tedious and/or boring. Worse still, since there are co-workers and managers in attendance, any issues you may have with them doesn’t disappear at the venue door. That means the relaxed holiday party environment may still be stressful or anxiety inducing.
How to Behave
I think professionals are intelligent individuals. Most realize fairly early in their career that no matter what the boss says about letting the hair down and having some fun, they are still on the clock. It’s hard for that not to be the case. You have a group of people whose only common thread is the work environment. This is also a group of people who have developed norms and behavior patterns built around professional interactions with their co-workers at achieving whatever the organizational mission is. That doesn’t just turn off during the three hours a year when the coffee mug usually being held by employees gets traded for a crystal wine glass filled with Pinot Grigio.
This means that there is still a uniform (uniform article link here) that has to be worn. It’s a slightly different uniform in that it’s got to be venue and event appropriate, but it’s still a uniform. You may like wearing ripped up and oil stained cutoffs at the house when you work on your project cars, but that’s won’t fly at the holiday party. This is true even if the event is at some kind of outdoor amusement park.
Ideally, if the majority of invites and announcements are to be believed the event should be a bit like a crazy college party where everyone goes nuts. During the collegiate social gatherings generally there is no judgement when people get drunk to the point of sickness, wear strange clothing, act odd, hook up or have emotional issues that appear when people drop their guard. Nobody judges your crazy ‘out of the box’ behavior because everyone gets to be as out of the box as they want as they figure out their boundaries. In the college years everyone understood the value of, and need for, completely letting go every now and again. What happened at the party didn’t really affect how people interfaced with each other the next day. It helps that everyone is pretty independent and really has the ability to not see each other later if they don’t want to.
That’s obviously one of the big differences to the professional world. Acceptable boundaries are assumed to have been developed earlier in life and because of the interconnected nature of the people at the event, any aborant action or behavior is going to be considered when moving forward the next day at work. Ie, really being yourself a professional event, even one designed to let you be more of who you are outside of work, isn’t really advisable.
The Good and the Bad
If we come to the conclusion that we are still on the clock when it comes to holiday parties, and we can’t behave as we would like to then it may not be something that many people would want to do. Unfortunately it’s probably not a good idea to ditch the event year after year as that would be seen as something akin to skipping out of work by management and co-workers. The good news is that there are some real benefits to holiday parties.
The first benefit is that it’s usually a unique networking opportunity (networking article link). Because of the more open ended nature of the holiday party it’s a good occasion to explore non-work subjects to find affinity. This can be helped by spouses at a couples event. The more they chat the more you will learn things. Since everyone is interconnected on so many levels in the modern professional work place there is a chance to learn something you can use to create better connections at work. Maybe the wife who is from the office doesn’t chat much about her son having juvenile diabetes but the husband you meet at the holiday party has no problems sharing their challenges, and you learn what is stressing your colleague. That’s an opportunity to make connections by offering some measure of support like passing on an interesting article on the subject of some new breakthrough. There are a million opportunities to do this type of thing if you keep your eye open for them.
Another benefit is that even though most are ‘on’ meaning they are acting professionally, sometimes there is a window to a completely different ‘non-work’ personality. I’ve seen a boss who’s a relentless taskmaster when he’s at the office loosen up and seem very relaxed at a semi-corporate pool party. I still don’t believe he was showing 100% of his true persona at the summer event, but he definitely was showing more of who he is when the relentless demands of work were not on his shoulders.
I think the ability to have a ‘night out’ in a safe and cost effective way is one of the arguments organizations make in favor of the holiday party, and also to their point, a true benefit. It is especially true when you consider the more formal holiday parties. As the world becomes more informal, the opportunities for a formal evening are rare. You generally don’t see suits and formal dresses at Broadway shows, nice restaurants, or really anywhere that’s not an event called prom. Yet our culture still promotes the dress up and go out event as an ideal. Although my experience is that it’s much more of a phenomenon amongst women, I do know several men who look forward to the experience of dressing up and going out someplace special. Every couple has a natural equilibrium to the amount of times per year they like to go out to satiate this desire. The formal company holiday party is definitely one way to take care of one of those nights. If both spouses are professionals, there may even be the opportunity for two formal gatherings.
It’s not all peaches and cream, or eggnog and roast beef as the case may be. The reason why so many groan when the company party announcement comes in is because the event can be an emotional drain for those who are not wired to be energized by the formality. As I said, even if the holiday party is a more casual event, you still have to be on, ie in professional mode. An additional 3 or 4 hours in the week to have to have your business face on can be very draining for some. When you consider the fact that some events have alcohol, and the event is not a standard thing that most people deal with day in and day out, it’s easy to see where there could be a slip up. It’s an opportunity to say the wrong thing to the wrong person if your guard isn’t up.
Holiday Party Survival Guide
Whether you get excited about the holiday party because it’s an excuse to go shopping and you can force your significant other to get dressed up, or you hate them because it’s one extra night of work, you gotta be prepared. To that end, there are some best practices to follow.
How you dress is very important. Dress for work, or in traditional attire associated with the holiday. Traditional attire for a male could be a crushed red velvet sport coat. Obviously you wouldn’t wear that to the big meeting with the new potential client but you can definitely get away with it at the holiday extravaganza. Females can get away with the prom / wedding style but overt sexuality is an absolute No-No. The men at work will not forget the sight of that cleavage if the female colleague decides low-cut is in this year.
Conversation is also an important consideration. Focus on non-work but culturally light conversations that are universally connecting. I would argue all the safe non work topics that you heat at the office are fodder for the banquet table. Think subjects like Kids, school, travel, Sports, and media including books, movies, and popular TV.
Never forget to show appreciation to the boss and/or organization. They probably had to jump through some hoops to get everything set up for the holiday event. Beyond the logistics for the event, there’s nearly always push back from senior management on spending money on anything including things like holiday parties.
The biggest thing I would recommend is to maintain a positive attitude even if it’s something you don’t want to do. I say this because even if you find it to be a draining experience there is usually some good that can come out of it beyond the chicken dinner. At the very least, it’s usually better than having to spend those same hours of the event stuck living the grind of your daily office activities. That alone is one of the best gifts you can get from your employer all year.
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