It’s one of those little secrets. A majority of people either hate office holiday parties or simply don’t care about them. Yet year after year, people dress up for an evening of socializing with people with whom they have little in common except their workplace. Last year, an American Express survey showed that only about a third of company employees looked forward to these events and most people are neutral to negative about them. Research conducted by the British Greyhound Racing Board* this year found that 70 percent of British workers would just as soon avoid the whole thing.
It’s not that people don’t like to party. Most folks do. A party is a treat. A party is a time to relax and socialize and maybe dance the night away. A party is a bright spot that is fun to look forward to, fun to attend, fun to remember. So what’s the problem with office parties?
It’s that the office party is so often experienced as an artificial event. Although most workers like the idea of an evening out that is a gift from the company and most bosses like to show their appreciation for another year of good work, it may well be that the typical office party isn’t the best way to accomplish either goal.
The issues are many: Declining the invitation feels impossible because it makes you look like you don’t care to spend down time with your co-workers – which may be the truth but it’s a truth most people don’t like to advertise. People who customarily only talk about work don’t know what else to talk about. People who rarely cross paths with management find it awkward to make small talk with the boss. People who are shy by nature or who have other priorities are often terribly nervous or terribly resentful. When alcohol is served, someone, maybe more than one someones, ends up the office embarrassment by revealing too much about themselves, hitting on someone who doesn’t welcome the attention, or saying things that in the light of day they wish they hadn’t.
Then there is the matter of one’s date for the party: Many people feel they can’t win when it comes to bringing the significant other. Bring your “other” and he or she is likely to be bored to tears by the shop talk. Don’t bring the “other” and people wonder: Is your relationship in trouble? Is your “other” not supportive of your career? If there is any lack of trust between you, that same “other” who loathed the party last year won’t stay home for this one. Although the party is a bore, it’s better than wondering what you’re up to all night. And don’t even think of bringing someone to the office party as a “first date!” The pressure it puts on the relationship and the questions you’ll have to answer at work on Monday aren’t worth it.
What’s highest on the list of complaints about the annual office party? Many, many people would rather spend what limited down-time they have either getting ready for their own holiday or socializing with real friends and family. The weeks before the winter holidays are stressed enough without giving over a whole evening to something they don’t care much about and often don’t enjoy.
And yet. . . And yet . . . Try not holding the party at all. Inevitably there are people who feel somehow gypped. The office holiday party has become such a cultural icon in the U.S. that the lack of a party is seen as stinginess on the part of management or a signal that the company is in serious financial trouble. Raising the option of not having the party, however gingerly, may be seen by one’s co-workers as bad manners at best or as giving management a way out of something “owed.” Management doesn’t want to be seen as withholding. No one (from the CEO on down) wants to be the person who says only what a lot of other people are thinking (and not saying). “Office party? Oh no, not again!”