How to Throw a Holiday Party Employees Will Be Excited to Attend

Every year around this time, my mail fills up with complaints from people about ways their companies are mishandling the holiday party – from making them pay to attend, to throwing a lavish event right after laying people off. The whole point of throwing a holiday party is to increase employee morale and engagement, so the last thing you want to do is hold an event that does the opposite!

Here are eight rules for throwing a company party that employees will want to attend.

1. Don’t require attendance, even unofficially. Some staffers truly don’t enjoy these sorts of functions, and that’s okay. Requiring their presence under the guise of giving them a treat will hurt morale, not build it. If the party is meant as a gift, you can’t turn it into an obligation, so don’t penalize people for not going, even just in your head.

2. Ensure that everyone who wants to go can go. Don’t leave your receptionist stuck covering the phone while everyone else goes to the party. And similarly, don’t make some employees “work” at the party (as caterers, coat checkers, or so forth).

3. Under no circumstances should you charge employees to attend. If you need to charge your party guests in order to cover your expenses, that’s a sign that you need to have a less lavish party.

4. Choose a convenient location, or arrange transportation for people who want it. Especially if you live in a city with good public transportation, some of your employees may not have cars. Make sure they can get to and from the venue easily.

5. Do not hold the party on a boat. You may expect people to stay for the full event, but some people will want to attend only part of it, and a boat means they’re stuck out for the whole evening. (Or will need to swim…)

6. Door prizes. Have them, and make them good. No $5 coupons or company mugs.

7. If the company is going through cutbacks, don’t throw an extravagant party. There’s no better way to demoralize employees than to lower this year’s bonuses and then blow thousands on a swanky affair.

8. Consider letting your staff vote on whether they want a holiday party or a day off … and don’t be upset if lots of people vote for the day off.

 

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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  • NicoleW

    I hope lots of managers read this article! I’d like to advocate something during work hours. The last thing I want to do is pay a babysitter so I can go to a work party! Maybe a long lunch nearby or within the office. Or maybe appetizers and drinks for the last 2 hours of the day. Or, an extra day off near the holidays. :)
    I think my company continues to mess this up. When the economy went south, we stopped having holiday parties. This was understandable, but it seems like they could have done something inexpensive rather than nothing. Then this year, we got an email 1 week in advance that there is a happy hour (well, 2 hours) starting just before the end of our work day. And it’s at our other location, which has extremely limited public transit. (We work downtown, other division is 15-20 minutes away by car.)  I already have a commitment that evening, so I’m just kind of bitter about the whole thing. Not that I think I’m missing a great time, but that I won’t be able to experience one of the extremely few things the company does for morale.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Great points. I think off often employers forget to look at these things from the employee experience end of things … or even just to ask for input about it!

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    Anon Reply:

    I once suggested that the company solicit suggestions from attendees and I was told not to look a gift horse in the mouth. If I were organizing something like this, I would absolutely want to know if people enjoyed it and how they think it could be improved – asking for suggestions for improvement in no way obligates you to adopt them all. Oh well.

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  • Another Anon

    Wonderful article!  Our party is an evening cocktail event with ear-splitting music. We don’t socialize at work much, so the annual exercise of our atrophied social muscles, trying to mingle gracefully and shout introductions and small talk to one another, is uncomfortable for us and painful for our spouses whose presence is nearly as mandatory as ours. I wish we could just have a long lunch with the team, even a pot luck. That’s plenty special enough for a team that rarely gets lunch at all and almost never together. It wouldn’t induce social stage fright as much or make spouses and kids unhappy either.

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    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Oooh, mandatory spouse attendance is its own form of torture.

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  • http://twitter.com/johntomlinson John Tomlinson

    Great stuff.

     

    I also wish that people who go to the parties, especially
    managers, not stop by the desk of someone who didn’t go the next morning and
    say “We missed you yesterday.” Even if it’s well-meaning, it is so
    annoying to get four or six people saying the same thing the next morning. If I
    haven’t gone to an office party in a few years, maybe I just don’t want to go.
    Is it that hard to understand?

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Managers who say that are nearly always being well-intentioned, but it can really come across as having a subtext of pressure or disapproval. Managers tend to forget how loaded the decision to attend or not attend can be for employees, and how sensitive they can be about those kinds of comments.

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    Anon Reply:

    This. A thousand times this. I usually don’t like attending this sort of gathering – I like my coworkers, but 40 hours a week is sufficient for this introvert. And I really hate feeling pressured or judged because of it. It’s not that I won’t socialize a bit at work, but can’t that be enough?

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  • Kdizzle.

    I’m a big fan of low key celebrations such as going out to lunch or even just ordering in and letting everyone get together in the office. I’m an introvert and hate forced small talk, but I don’t mind the occasional group lunch or easily escapable event. Sometimes, just knowing it’s easy to leave at any point makes me feel more comfortable while I’m there. 

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Yes!  The ability to leave is crucial. Hence, no parties on a boat!

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  • Erin

    Man, I wish the company I work for could see this! #7 and #8 hit close to home, since we were told at Thanksgiving that there would be no bonuses because money is so tight, and yet they threw a Christmas party with an OPEN BAR. Several of us talked about how we would have preferred to get bonuses over having a Christmas party.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Print it out and leave it somewhere public :)

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  • ChrisJB

    I once worked for the local branch office of a huge nationwide firm whose official policy was that company-paid holiday parties were for employees only — no significant others allowed!  This sort of idiocy certainly deserves a place on your list.  (My boss circumvented this rule by hosting our office’s party himself, on his own dime.) 

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Your boss sounds kind of awesome!

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  • Catbert is my hero

    I would welcome comments or thoughts on what we do for our holiday celebration:

    HR sets the budget.  A volunteer staff committee plans the event, including location, food, door prizes, etc.  The event takes place on a Friday from 12-2 pm;  the office officially closes at 2pm that day.  All are invited, both those that choose not to go are expected to work until 2 pm. Since we are in a city, we reimburse subway fare one-way, since participants are free to go home from the party (we would reimburse both ways if a participant for some reason has to return to the office afterward).

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Sounds good to me!  There will always be some employees who prefer one thing and some who prefer another, but this sounds like a pretty crowd-pleasing option.

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    Micattledriver Reply:

    Why do the people who choose not to attend the party have to work while others party? Why can’t they leave work early?

    [Reply]

    Catbert is my hero Reply:

    We thought about that alot.  It really bothered those staff who put together the event that some would not even bother to show up for a few minutes and socialize, even though the organization is dedicating time, effort and money for the staff’s benefit.  We do not require that staff stay the entire time, though you do have to be present to win any door prizes, which are always at the end of the event.  In the end, we decided to be consistent with how we handle other voluntary activities.  We actively encourage staff to engage in volunteer activities in the community, and we schedule group activities (such as helping at a nearby shelter or food bank) during work hours so that staff with daycare and other evening obligations can participate.  No one is required to participate, but if they choose not to, then they have to remain at work. 

    [Reply]

    Alison Green / Ask a Manager Reply:

    It’s probably worth explaining to the staff who felt hurt that these events simply aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. It’s no slight toward them; it’s simply not something that everyone enjoys, just like everyone might not enjoy, say, participating in a softball game or something. But if it’s meant as a treat for the staff, it seems wrong to make people work if they choose not to go.

    Guest Reply:

     I agree.  That is some good advice.  You should never force people to do things they don’t want to do, or ‘punish’ them for not doing something.  I would be really upset if I worked for a company that did that.  Makes me wonder about management’s overall decision making skills. 
    When you give something as a ‘gift’ and expect people to appreciate it or compensate you back in some form, whether it’s emotional or monetary compensation, then it’s not a truly a gift.

    Another Anon Reply:

    I’ve always been puzzled at the idea that the office party is for the employees’ benefit so employees must attend. They must be hauled back if they’re clawing at the door to escape the uncomfortable social situation because they must show their appreciation of those who have done so much to make them happy. Something is just missing there. 

  • Cbecker

    And you know what else?  If someone doesn’t really seem to “like” their co-workers, or engage with them socially at work, they’re not going to come to a party with them!  Don’t be surprised, and don’t ask them why they didn’t come–you already know why. 

    [Reply]

    Another Anon Reply:

    That’s why you have to go. If you don’t, it says to your manager that you “don’t play well with others.” You’re “not a good team player.” Of course, maybe instead you had babysitter problems or another commitment or you just hate big drinking parties, but if you don’t go you risk sending a message that puts a black mark on your eval.

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  • http://therelaxedsewer.weebly.com Nethwen

    Door Prizes: Make them equally good. A company mug for one person and a $20 gas card for another takes away some of the fun. 

    Also, I think it is better to have no door prizes than to have useless ones: anything with a company logo, keychain flashlights, restaurant coupons – they all count as useless clutter. The exception to things with company logos would be if you require a company shirt or other item the employees have to purchase in order to work there and you give out certificates for one free item. Then the people could pick their size/style after the party and have a free something that makes their work lives easier.

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    Agree! If you’re going to do prizes, make them good ones. (That doesn’t have to mean expensive, but I agree — no company logo stuff.)  Otherwise, it’s fine to not do them at all.

    [Reply]

  • Working Girl

    How about no assigned seating? Formal attire not mandatory? I’ve heard of (but thankfully not experienced) both of these.

    [Reply]

  • Working Girl

    How about no assigned seating? Formal attire not mandatory? I’ve heard of (but thankfully not experienced) both of these.

    [Reply]

  • Anonymous

    Timely! I have only been working for two years, in two different locations, and at both, I’ve been partially responsible for footing the bill for the holiday “party.” One was a tiny lunch in my tiny workplace, where not only did I get a present for my boss, all the employees chipped in to pay for the food we brought in, on the theory that the boss pays when we go out to eat, so the employees pay when we bring food in. (NB: this also applied to birthday cakes, including one for the boss on his birthday. Not sure exactly when we would go out for birthday cake…) And now I just got my “invitation” to the holiday party at my new, much larger office–taking place at a club for the low, low price of $20 per person! The office will “pay for the remainder.” (Thanks.) And to think! I wouldn’t have known how unusual my experiences have been without this information.

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  • frosty

    What thoughts are out there about this?
    My employer is a non-profit with 40-60 employees at 7 locations. For the past ten years the holiday party has been on a Friday afternoon at the central office with a potluck meal and white elephant gifts and board games. Casual.
    This year a board member and his wife are generously hosting the staff holiday party at their home on a Friday night, with cocktail attire and live music. Some employees are so happy to have the opportunity for fancy dress-up and for others this style does not appeal to them nor do they have the wardrobe nor means to stay overnight. That’s my comment. My question is, “What about a hostess gift in this case? Is it appropriate or inappropriate?”

    [Reply]

    Alison Green - Ask a Manager Reply:

    It’s definitely not inappropriate, but it’s not obligatory either.

    [Reply]

  • Anon

    Also can we please not be forced to chip in for the boss’s gift?!? 

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  • Anonymous

    Worked for a mega-insurer’s home office once that threw the most expensive holiday things ever. Booked the hotel next door, big band and DJ, buffets, open bar, all the material goods in place. But it was soul-less. They invited the whole building including all other tenants, so everyone was partying with people you didn’t know whether you were supposed to recognize them or what. (Name tags might have helped, at least maybe with a subtle color-code that would have let you know who was from what company.)  A lavish and well-intentioned effort but meaningless as a morale-builder and rather dreaded by most.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1272729132 Sara Green Williams

    We are a small non-profit (under 100 people); about half our staff work “normal” office hours and the others work very part-time odd hours day and night (we’re a 24/7 operation). No matter when we throw a party, someone is going to miss out, but we like to do the party as it’s a rare chance to get us all in the same room together with so many of our folks aren’t in the office at the same time normally.

    What we have opted for is going basic – we throw our party in January (after the madness has died down), call it “annual” rather than holiday, and do everything we can by utilizing trade with other businesses rather than cash [we don't have cash for a party in the budget period]. We keep the party simple: light food, open bar (up to a pre-determined limit), a few words of thanks from our executive director, a bring one/take one surprise gift exchange (with a “please spend little to nothing” caveat), and sometimes a photo booth (if we can get it for trade). We do it 21+ and it’s the staff plus a guest each. We do the party on a Friday evening, starting early at 6:00 or so and going until 9:00. That makes it so people have time to get there, enjoy, and still have the rest of their night to carry on with, or be home at a reasonable time.

    What we have found in the past is that simple works best. Most of our folks just want to hang out and shoot the breeze – we’ve tried a white elephant, karaoke, all kinds of things in the past, but last year’s simple party was the most successful. I would love figure out a way to offer child care, too, but I don’t have that solution yet.

    [Reply]

  • Another Anon

    Besides all this, office party etiquette is a minefield. At one company party for a small company I worked for, the boss offered me a line of cocaine. Now, I want to look like I fit into the culture and I’m a team player, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful for the bonus-of-sorts, but I don’t even drink. That he and other office mates did drugs was TMI as far as I was concerned. I said “Thanks, that’s really generous! But I’m just not into it tonight. You can have mine.” Fortunately he just smiled and said he would. I hope I looked more graceful and open-minded than I felt.

    [Reply]

  • Another Anon

    Besides all this, office party etiquette is a minefield. At one company party for a small company I worked for, the boss offered me a line of cocaine. Now, I want to look like I fit into the culture and I’m a team player, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful for the bonus-of-sorts, but I don’t even drink. That he and other office mates did drugs was TMI as far as I was concerned. I said “Thanks, that’s really generous! But I’m just not into it tonight. You can have mine.” Fortunately he just smiled and said he would. I hope I looked more graceful and open-minded than I felt.

    [Reply]

  • Sarahrcs 1

    If a company has a holiday brunch/meeting should an hourly employee have to clock out?

    [Reply]

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    Even though that mostly all of us are excited on this
    Yuletide season yet we should set some limitations to ourselves. It is for our
    own good also.

    [Reply]

  • http://www.goedkoperdankopen.nl/ads/partytent-6x3-huren-emmeloord-urk-lemmer-flevoland/ partytent huren

    Even though that mostly all of us are excited on this
    Yuletide season yet we should set some limitations to ourselves. It is for our
    own good also.

    [Reply]

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  • Gina

    we had a holiday party and every one was given strip tickets to put your name on and chose what gift you wanted to use it for so you went around and pit then in the bag for the gift you wanted, well a few of us are older and left the party early because it was getting late well the next day at work we found out we won, but since we were not there we did not get the prize, do you think that’s right???? No where was there anything sayting that….

    [Reply]