What Happened to Office Holiday Parties?

After several years of cutting back, three-quarters of firms will hold holiday parties this year. The pros and cons for leaders to consider.

It was a December corporate rite of passage, whether it involved a paper-cup champagne toast around the conference room, a fancy six-hour soiree taking over the local museum, or something in between. And then, in the middle of the decade, firms began to scale back holiday parties—or nixed them entirely.

This year brings interesting tidings. According to various surveys, about three-quarters of firms will host holiday parties to end 2019, the most since 2016. The parties, however, are not necessarily inspiring holiday cheer. Only about one-third of employees find their company’s holiday party entertaining, about the same percentage as those who say they can’t stand them.

Holiday parties were, of course, affected by the #MeToo movement. But there were other reasons companies were pulling back, including constant industry disruptions and an extended period of low salary increases. Both took away some of the year-end holiday cheer that workers and managers normally want for such events.

But HR experts say that holiday parties may be more important than ever. “In today’s world, there’s a lot of more people churning through a company. If you’re trying to build a cohesive unit, having a well-designed holiday party is a way to build some stickiness in the organization,” says Ron Porter, a senior client partner with Korn Ferry’s Global Human Resources Center of Expertise.

The parties also are a nod to tradition, an underrated aspect of work life, says Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner Debra Nunes. “In this day and age, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of tradition,” she says.

Holiday parties are a chance for coworkers who may not see each other regularly to reconnect. That itself can make employees happier and lead to future collaboration. It also gives leaders a chance to reflect on the year, thank employees, and even single out top performers.

Leaders shouldn’t discount those moments at holiday parties, Nunes says. “The holiday party is a chance for the leader to say something—words that, if someone else said them, wouldn’t carry the same weight.” Indeed, a leader who doesn’t show up—or even one that isn’t particularly visible at the party—can sabotage what is supposed to be a cohesion-building event, Porter says.

If leaders do decide to have a holiday party, a few rules aren’t a bad idea. The Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommends limiting the party’s hours, providing rides for guests, providing food (to soak up any drinks), and having some people keep an eye on the party to intervene if problems do arise. SHRM also suggests distributing beforehand a “respect” memo: a note that provides party details—such as dress code—and reminds employees what constitutes good versus unacceptable behavior. “People who go to holiday parties should exercise good common sense,” Nunes says.