Companies plan to party for the holidays this year

Mitchell Hartman Dec 10, 2019
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

Companies plan to party for the holidays this year

Mitchell Hartman Dec 10, 2019
Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

More than three-quarters of U.S. companies plan to hold holiday parties this year, up 10% from last year, according to a survey from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

This year’s parties will be more expensive than last year, and more will feature alcohol. Seven percent of companies are back to putting on festivities this year after not throwing parties for several years running.

This will be the first year Jay Ratkowski throws a holiday party for his digital marketing startup, Transistor LLC, in Greendale, Wisconsin.

“We’re going to grab dinner at a steakhouse and go to see an NBA game right afterwards,” he said.

Ratkowski and four employees will see the Milwaukee Bucks play the Orlando Magic.

“We have a company policy of no forced team building or company happy hours or anything like that,” Ratkowski said. “But everyone said they wanted to. So we’ll be down on the floor. There will be free drinks throughout the game, which could be trouble, but those tickets don’t come cheap.”

Andrew Challenger at Challeger, Gray & Christmas said the surge in company celebrations this year comes down to the economy and tight job market.

“Companies are confident,” he said. “They’re searching for employees, and they spend a lot on their holiday parties to retain and attract talented people.”

But Jen Maxwell-Muir, who runs Maxwell PR, a communications and branding firm in Portland, Oregon, is skeptical about parties’ ability to retain talent. She’s holding one this year, treating her 30 employees to a holiday brunch at one of the city’s hot new restaurants, handing out gift cards and then giving them the rest of the day off.

But, she said, “a party is not going to keep people. Good work, good managers, fair policies, that’s what’s going to keep people. The fun and community that results from a party is definitely an added bonus.”

Parties can also be liabilities. Ratkowski of Transistor saw plenty of holiday party trouble at the big marketing firms where he worked before he founded his own small company: “Actual fistfights that had to be broken up, people had to be sent home, scary close calls, having to roll people over that passed out — pretty over the top.”

Mixing work and alcohol also raises concerns for human resources staff about the potential for sexual harassment and assault. In 2017 and 2018, some companies canceled their parties as the #MeToo movement gained momentum.

“They were concerned that the holiday party posed an unsafe environment,” Challenger said. “They were worried about alcohol being served, late at night, outside normal work hours.”

But this year, companies are issuing fewer pre-holiday party warnings to employees about potential bad behavior, according to the Challenger survey.

Brody Zucker, an HR consultant at Mammoth HR in Portland, thinks that, in part, reflects the fact that the #MeToo message has sunk in.

“Because the #MeToo movement has been top of mind for a year or two, employers have the expectation that employees are more comfortable reporting bad behavior,” Zucker said. “And employees themselves hopefully and likely have less fear of retaliation from either their employer or co-workers if they do report something they feel is inappropriate.”

Zucker suggests a few HR “best practices” to reduce company liability and keep holiday parties safe:

  • Use a professional event venue and hire trained bartenders to cut people off when they’ve had too much to drink.
  • Offer partygoers free rides home after the event.
  • Designate at least one senior manager to stay sober, keep an eye on things and intervene when they spot bad or dangerous behavior.

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