06 Feb. 2015 | Comments (0) Share Follow @Conferenceboard
Early in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the first spirit to visit Scrooge summons up a cheerful scene from his youth: old Fezziwig’s Ball. When the book was published to great acclaim in 1843, bosses on both sides of the Atlantic were so moved by Fezziwig’s merry example, and Marley’s frightening one, that they promptly joined Scrooge in handing out turkeys and granting days off. Quite possibly, we have Dickens to thank for the enduring tradition of the office holiday party.
But has that institution become as anachronistic as a 19th-century industrial mill? Perhaps it’s time to rethink the point of the holiday party, and whether it’s still having anything like its desired effect. Managers expect the annual gathering to do a few good things for the workplace: to encourage coworkers to get to know each other informally; to appreciate and celebrate the year’s good work by all; to remind everyone they are part of “one company.” But several studies suggest that not much of this is actually being accomplished.
No one mingles. Let’s start with a paper by Paul Ingram and Michael Morris of Columbia University called “Do People Mix at Mixers?” The short answer: not much. Using electronic name tags to track the social interactions of 100 business people at a social gathering, the study found that people overwhelmingly stuck with people they already knew, even when they had “overwhelmingly stated before the event that their goal was to meet new people.”
Diversity suffers. Holiday parties are what boundary theorists refer to as “integration events,” because they integrate elements of employees’ personal and professional lives – presumably leading to greater employee engagement. But work by Tracy Dumas and her colleagues shows that erasing boundaries serves some people far more than others. They studied people’s experiences at company parties and found, across two studies with distinct samples, that these unstructured social gatherings “did increase closeness for employees who were racially similar to their coworkers” – but not for the employees who were racially dissimilar. Human psychology being what it is, people connect better when they perceive fewer differences – and differences which had been minimized in the context of office and work were heightened as more glimpses of non-work life entered the picture.
There may be more downside risk than upside opportunity. When the Society for Human Resources surveyed HR leaders about the office holiday party, it heard about a range of concerns, especially since alcohol is usually part of the scene. Six percent of HR execs, in fact, said they were aware of unwanted sexual advances having taken place at holiday parties. (Note that this is the number HR found out about – and that HR managers were willing to concede.) For employers ever more fearful of litigation, and employees more attuned to the repercussions of behaving badly, the office party might look more and more like a minefield. No wonder, says John Challenger (CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas) that “Companies might find that employees would actually prefer time off versus an afternoon or evening of manufactured frivolity.”
Nothing changes. One rationale for getting people to know and like each other better is that they will then begin to work differently – collaborating more richly and deferring less to formal hierarchies and structures. If you hoped a convivial holiday party might encourage that, however, let Michael Rosen of NYU disabuse you. In a wonderful piece of organizational ethnography, he tagged along to the Christmas party of Shoenman and Associates, watched the skits, and hung out at the fringes with some up-and-comers. He was struck by the encouragement of banter and behaviors that seemed to defy the hierarchy of the firm, but ultimately concluded that such mild defiance only serves to reinforce existing power structures. It’s the occasional exception that reminds everyone of the rule. “In order for the Christmas party to be operationally efficacious it is not necessary that come Monday morning the members of Shoenman and Associates behave differently from the previous Thursday or Friday,” he writes. “Instead, it is important that they remain the same, reproducing the order that is Shoenman and Associates in the face of change.“
Parties are signals. So does the holiday party serve any purpose at all? Maybe there isn’t much engagement, integration, or collaboration benefit to these awkward gatherings, but they do still have at least one function. They say something about the state of the business. The announcement that the annual party will take place, and will even be better catered than last year’s, is a reassurance to the workforce, and all the company’s stakeholders, that things are on the right track.
But for that matter, maybe we shouldn’t even need an instrumental reason. I’m willing to bet that when you entertain in your home, you don’t do it with an eye to how you’ll profit from it. You do it out of generosity and the sheer enjoyment of spending time with people you like. What if your company’s leaders just threw a party because they enjoyed your company?
When Scrooge reacts with glee to the memory of Fezziwig’s Ball, the Spirit of Christmas Past asks how it could possibly have meant so much: “He has spent but a few pounds of your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so much that he deserves this praise?” But Scrooge will have none of it. “It isn’t that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. And say that his power lies in words and looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is impossible to add and count ’em up: what then? The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.”
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 12/17/2014.
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