Learning & Development

Holiday Parties in the Post-Pandemic Era: A Guide for HR Leaders

In the midst of the holiday season and with the COVID-19 pandemic firmly in the rear-view mirror, many companies are gearing up for their annual holiday parties. Depending on one’s perspective, holiday parties can be one of the most or least enjoyable times of the work year.

office holiday party

While some staff revel in the opportunity to eat, drink and be merry with colleagues, others feel uncomfortable in social gatherings – especially if they’re used to spending their days alone in a home office. On top of this social angst, the combination of a social atmosphere, free-flowing alcohol and professional colleagues has the potential to create awkward (or worse) situations.

But let’s not be too negative here. In truth, office holiday parties do serve a valuable purpose, particularly in a world in which many employees work remotely. Holiday parties offer an opportunity to build camaraderie among coworkers, celebrate the previous year’s achievements and look forward to the year ahead.

We reached out to employers and industry experts to gain further insights into the dos, don’ts, and best practices of holiday parties.

Don’t Make Attendance Mandatory

One of the primary questions many employers wrestle with is whether or not to make attendance at holiday parties mandatory. Unless holiday parties are held during the workday, it’s not necessarily realistic to expect all employees to be able to attend. Childcare needs and other responsibilities often make evenings and weekends difficult times for many workers.

And while few companies would fire an employee for not showing up to the holiday party, there is often a lot of pressure to attend from managers and coworkers. This is best avoided. It may be nice to have as many people attend as possible, but not everyone is comfortable in social situations.

“Employees should always be able to choose whether they attend office holiday parties,” says Stephan Baldwin, founder, and HR manager of Assisted Living. “Making attendance an obligation also implies that there’s a punishment for not showing up. This can place extra anxiety on employees, especially those grieving during the holidays and would much rather opt out of any festivities.”

Michele Rau, Director of HR at Vaco Holdings, agrees. “Employers should absolutely promote their event and encourage all employees to attend, but the bottom line is that no one should feel it’s mandatory to attend a company holiday party.”

Do Make Inclusivity a Priority

Readers may note we’re talking here about “holiday” parties, not Christmas parties. It’s very possible that the majority of an organization’s workforce are practicing Christians or at least grew up celebrating Christmas, but many employees also may not celebrate Christmas, and a Christmas-focused party might make many feel left out.

When one of the primary objectives of a holiday party should be to foster greater camaraderie and feelings of belonging in an organization, inclusivity is a must.

“With more diverse teams, we also need to acknowledge that not all cultures consider the end of the year a festive time, and some may even abstain from holiday events in light of their beliefs,” says Baldwin. “Making it their decision shows you respect the diversity of your team and allows each person to celebrate the holidays in a way that’s most comfortable for them.”

Similarly, Rau encourages employers to remember that the event should be a celebration for all employees. “First and foremost, employers should make it clear the event is inclusive of all employees,” she says. “Focus on a winter or other broader theme to convey that the event is not based on any one specific holiday, but to celebrate the teamwork and accomplishments of the year. The goal is for everyone to feel welcome.”

Do Be Transparent with Details

A great recipe for feeling awkward and uncomfortable at a party is to show up underdressed, or overdressed, or too early, or too late, or without a dish to pass if that’s expected. Employers should make sure to clearly communicate the details of the party well in advance and include them conspicuously on the invitation.

“Be clear about the details,” says Rau. “The more information employees have about the event, the more willing they’ll be to attend. Provide your team with specifics on the activities that are planned, what type of food and drink are included, what to wear and whether significant others are invited. This eliminates unknowns and allows employees to make an informed decision about whether they can attend.”

Some Tips Regarding Alcohol

While employees running around with a lampshade on their head might make for a funny story on Monday morning, office parties really are not the place to encourage or allow raucous behavior. There’s just so much that can go wrong, including drunk driving, arguments, and sexual harassment. And if business partners or other outsiders are invited to attend, misbehaving employees (or managers!) can reflect poorly on the organization.

That doesn’t mean the party can’t be any fun or can’t involve alcohol; it just means care should be used to reign in the potential for things getting out of hand.

“If alcohol is served, never, ever have an open bar,” says Karen Blackwell, Sr. HR Consultant at Gallagher. “I believe that is a known best practice by now.” But, she adds, if alcohol is served, “a best practice is to give each employee one ticket for a cocktail.” Employees can pay for any other drinks. In addition, she recommends, “have the bar open only a few hours, not all night.”

Blackwell also recommends having plenty of non-alcoholic beverages available. “Today, there are many great-tasting ‘mocktail’ beverages on the market,” she points out. “Advise the bar vendor ahead of time to have a great mocktail available. This will help ease social pressure to have a drink in-hand.”

Company parties have been a long-standing tradition in the workplace. Even Ebenezer Scrooge had fond memories of attending Mr. Fezziwig’s annual festivities. But as the times and social mores change, so too do the dos, don’ts, and best practices around holiday parties.

Employers should plan their events carefully and thoughtfully to make sure employees genuinely enjoy themselves in a safe and responsible manner. It’s still work, after all.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.

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