8 ways companies can throw holiday parties employees will want to attend

Every year around this time, I hear from people complaining about various ways their companies are mishandling the holiday party, so here are eight rules for throwing a better company party.

1. Hold it during work hours, especially if attendance is any way obligatory. Seriously. People will be much more enthusiastic about attending.

2. After you follow rule #1, make arrangements so that no one is stuck covering the phones while everyone else goes to the party.

3. Don’t expect people to read your mind. If there are work repercussions to not attending, be honest and tell people they’re expected to attend. But if the event is truly supposed to be for their enjoyment, accept that some people won’t show up because they don’t enjoy such events (or would rather spend their non-work time doing something else), and be okay with that. Don’t penalize people for not going, even just in your head.

4. Do not hold the party on a boat. People must be able to escape at any time.

5. Under no circumstances should employees need to pay 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.

6. Hanukkah ornaments do not belong on a Christmas tree.

7. Door prizes. Have them.

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

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. Charles*

    Good list, AAM, can I add another rule?

    Unless folks volunteer, don't make employees, whose usual job duties do NOT include event planning, plan the party.

    Seriously, I was "put in charge" of planning a department holiday party when I was the company trainer. So, while I was suppose to be in class, you know actually training folks, I was also suppose to be calling the deli and other places to arrange for food to be delivered, etc. (and all the other items from the manager's list of must-haves for the party!)

    While I would not have minded (and maybe would have enjoyed) planning the department party, there was no way that I could do that and my regular job which was to train folks for the entire company. It was rare when I was not in training class all day every day.

    No one can be in two places at one time doing two jobs!?

  2. Suzanne Lucas*

    Aargh, I have been to a party on a boat. They had entertainment that was so horrifyingly bad an inappropriate that the head of HR actually went up to the performers and whispered in their ears. They took a "break" and never came back.

    I'm sure whoever arranged it was dying.

    Fun times.

  3. Anonymous*

    Maybe it's an indication of the quality of my coworkers but "open bar" is the only thing they need to want to attend the holiday party. Which is the exact reason I don't attend those functions, I have absolutely no desire to see my peers, managers, and directs plastered.

  4. Dawn*

    "open bar" is the only thing they need to want to attend the holiday party

    I know some people like that, personally and professionally. They aren't interested unless there's free alcohol (that happened with my wedding). In my opinion, that goes to show they are thinking, "Sure, I'll celebrate the holidays with you, but what's in it for me?"

  5. Class factotum*

    Oh heck to the yes! I may have mentioned before that the VP in the next department when I worked in Miami had a holiday party at his house. After hours. No spouses/SOs. Career mandatory. And attendees had to chip in $25.

    Any time I spend with my boss after work is still work. Don't make me give you my free time for a stupid party with bad food. I have other things to do.

  6. Prairie Dog*

    How about #9: Actually have a party.

    I realize this seems to go against what some of your other rules imply, that some folks treat the holiday party as more of a burden than an opportunity to have fun with co-workers. But I work for a relatively large company where the holiday party has pretty much gone extinct.

    Well…that's not entirely true. It's at the discretion of individual departments. And there's one department in particular that throws a heck of a party, and seems to do it right. But then you have a thousand other folks who work in departments where the holidays pass by with barely even an acknowledgement, and that leaves these people feeling left out and underappreciated.

    Look, a holiday party done right is a great opportunity for co-workers to get together in a more casual environment, strengthen relationships and build team morale. But when you work someplace and see other people in the company doing that, or hear your friends at other companies talking pleasantly about their parties while your group does NOTHING, it starts to have a real negative impact.

    And then I'm left to wonder who it is that simply ISN'T GETTING THIS!

    And whose job it is to fix that?

    1. Sensible Shoes*

      But I work for a relatively large company where the holiday party has pretty much gone extinct.

      Same here. Now they just say, “You’re lucky to have a job. Er, Merry Christmas”.

      Many of my younger co-workers believe that corporate Christmas Parties only exist on TV sit coms.

    1. Sensible Shoes*

      Door prize? About 20 years ago, I won the grand door prize at a corporate Christmas Party. A Datsun 260z! Its the only thing that I have ever won.

      That company gave away a car every year, second prize was a Hawaiian vacation and 3rd prize was a TV. Everybody got something including a bonus.

      Course, those days are over.

  7. Phideaux*

    I'm with you. In fact that would be rule Number One for me. I am the Purchasing Manager at my company, so I get stuck with obtaining all of the food, beverages,tables & chairs, door prizes, etc for both the Christmas party and the summer company picnic. And like you, my work suffers as a result of all of the time I have to put into it and usually by party time I'm so sick of it I don't want to attend.

    However, the worst part of it for me is that at some point during or right after the party, there are always those ones who comment "You should have done this…" or "You should have served this…" but when it comes time to plan the event, those same people have no opinion to offer or no time or interest to help.

    Hmmmm, maybe this year I'll have the caterer serve liver and onions and hire a punk rock band for the entertainment so they will for once and for all take that duty away from me.

    1. Beck*

      LOFL! There’s an idea! This is my first year of being the one to plan the holiday party. If I screw it up bad enough, then maybe they will put someone else in charge of it!

  8. KellyK*

    I absolutely love this list; I think it's perfect, particularly rule #3.

    I would also add on to that that if there are work repercussions for not attending, think really hard about what business goals are met by making people go to a party they don't want to be at. If there are none, rethink those repercussions.

    The only reason I can come up with off the top of my head is that it's more an open house/schmooze potential customers sort of event than a party for employees.

  9. Anonymous*

    Can we not do potluck either? I don't cook (because I'm always at work!) and I don't want to hear "good natured ribbing" from my boss or choke down my coworker's cooking. Sorry that I'm cranky—can you tell our Christmas party is coming up?

  10. KellyK*

    I also *love* rule number four. Parties on boats are bad for everyone from introverts to people who like (or need) to get to bed early to people who have trouble getting late-evening childcare (e.g., a teenage babysitter who has a curfew).

    I think the only work party I deliberately blew off (as opposed to, had another commitment) was a dinner cruise.

  11. Anonymous*

    Why no Hanukkah ornaments on the Christmas tree? If they are not on the tree, can they be somewhere else? I found it funny at a previous employer when the Holiday party was held during the actual dates of Hanukkah, in an office with a large Jewish population, and no decorations representated that (only Christmas decorations and seasonal decorations, like snowflakes, were up). Well, maybe funny isn't the word.

  12. Ask a Manager*

    Because to observant Jews, it's offensive to have Jewish religious symbols tacked on to a religious symbol from a different faith. It would be like hanging a star of David from a crucifix, or putting a Jesus sticker on the Koran. (I'm sure that some non-observant Jews may not care at all … although I'm an example of a non-observant Jew who would be irked by it.)

    I also think it's kind of lame when companies put up Hanukkah decorations in an effort to give "equal time." Hanukkah isn't a major holiday like Christmas is, and it always comes across (to me) as forced and unknowledgeable, and a little condescending. (I'm not saying everyone feels like me though; I'm sure there are plenty of Jews who are glad to see it.)

    As a side note: Personally (and again I'm SO not speaking for all Jews here), I'm perfectly happy to get to bask in all all the Christmasy cheer and to get a day off in which I don't have any holiday obligations. You really don't need to try to make me feel like my holiday is included. It would be like if I were attending your 25th anniversary party and you took time out to make a big announcement about how I was on my fifth date with someone. Christmas and Hanukkah are just not on the same scale, and I find it kind of embarrassing for everyone when Christians try to act like they are. Again, just representing myself here, not giving you guidance on Jews as a whole.

  13. Jamie*

    YES! There are few things I resent more than mandatory after hours pseudo-social events. If I wanted to spend my personal time with my co-workers, I could arrange that – but it certainly wouldn't be everyone en masse at a business function. And make no mistake, if it's mandatory it's a business function.

    My company has it down perfectly: Catered luncheon at work on company time with a raffle.

    It's a lovely way for management to express their appreciation without any of the downsides: doesn't encroach on off hours, keeps it to a reasonable time (how much non-work related small talk can you make with people you only know through work?), and there's no drinking so no one gets sloppy and does anything that will hurt their career.

    I love the way they do the raffle as well. We aren't allowed to personally accept vendor gifts, so they are collected for the raffle and supplemented so everyone gets something. They have some bigger stuff (tickets to sporting events, cash, gift cards, electronics, etc.) in addition to the vendor gifts. Names are drawn at random and when you're called you pick what you want from the selection.

    I think a good general rule is people who are on the higher end of compensation should select lower valued gifts – but that's just my opinion.

    Personally I'm coveting a cookie jar in the shape of a Christmas penguin.

  14. Becky*

    It's a relief to see that both my and my husband's workplaces are doing so many things right in this regard (especially because there are definitely things they are NOT doing right in others). It probably explains why I enjoy both holiday parties so much. I can't imagine being stuck on a boat, or having to pay to attend. Who thinks that that is ok??

  15. Anonymous*

    Your commentary in the previous comments were interesting on Chanukah. I had heard it wasn't as big of a holiday as Christmas. I saw an interview last year or so with a rabbi in which he stated that Chanukah had taken on an identity close to Christmas – including all of the presents. He was trying to say that in its real sense, it's not like that at all.

    But that's besides the point with this particular post.

    I definitely want to stress the paying to get into a party point. I'm not going to mine simply because I have to pay. And it sounds like it's just a buffet to get some food while on break. It's not worth the few bucks. Is it okay to skip because I don't want to pay? There is a sign, but it didn't say "required" or "mandatory."

  16. Jamie*

    Allison wrote: "As a side note: Personally (and again I'm SO not speaking for all Jews here), I'm perfectly happy to get to bask in all all the Christmasy cheer and to get a day off in which I don't have any holiday obligations."

    As a kid I went to schools which were predominantly Jewish and this is exactly how I felt when I was off for Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. I learned a lot about Jewish culture from my friends, but this Catholic girl still enjoyed the days off school with no obligations.

    In grade school our holiday pageants were a mix of Hanukkah and Christmas – I learned the rules of spin the dreidle at the class parties and still know all the words to Oh Hanukkah. I thought it was nice sharing of cultures – and I still have a fondness for Hanukkah gelt with a candy cane.

    Anyway, I know some people can be offensive and some can take offense when none is intended (of every faith) – but I try to look at the intent. I don't assume because others are celebrating that which is important to them it takes anything away from me.

  17. Anonymous*

    Absolutely on the boat front. My husband and I intentionally skipped his work's party last year because they moved in from being an on-site banquet of awesomeness to being a 5 hour boat party. One definitely needs to be able to escape.

    My current workplace's Christmas party (and all our work events, really) is all about people getting plastered. I stick around for the work hours portion and then flee. I really don't want to spend time watching everyone getting horribly drunk or risk that myself. I'm kind of a stickler for professional behavior and no fun :(

  18. Amy*

    About half of the places I've worked have down holiday parties at the office, but over the lunch break. You have 2 hours to have fun, then back to work. (Also, they are usually potlucks, and are mandatory.)

    I hate this. Of course, I hate all forced fun at work, and would rather leave the office & have some nice food and a glass of wine that someone's homemade chili & jello salad before heading back to my desk.

  19. Jamie*

    I don't understand the concept of potlucks. I wouldn't like the idea of having to eat food prepared by other people.

    I'm a notoriously picky eater and I can't even look at certain foods – not to mention how do you know how clean their kitchens were when they were cooking?

    People who cook tend to take "no thank you" so personally. Food issues vs egos has to be a fairly common conflict.

    1. Sensible Shoes*

      Potlucks don’t cost very much and that is what they call a Holiday Party here. Ha!

      I go in, make an appearance, nibble at a few things and then leave.

      Oh, never, eat Mildred’s Seven Bean Dip. You will be farting for the rest of the day.

    2. Joseph*

      I don’t understand potlucks either, especially since I suffer from Crohn’s and have an extremely restricted diet. We had a holiday potluck a few years back, were required to attend, and it went from 4pm to 8pm. So there I was, in a room with all my coworkers, unable to eat any of the offered food, and starving by 8pm. And no one noticed that I basically just sat in a chair for 4 hours watching everyone else eat, drink and be merry. I actually would have preferred working those 4 hours instead.

  20. Anonymous*

    Rule #10: If you're having a holiday party, hold it before Christmas!

    My current company held one of their holiday parties in mid-January. I didn't even bother attending. By then, what's the point?

    Open bars are an interesting thing. I had two company parties with open bars, resulting in the following:

    Company A – Drunken Karaoke (with people sounding like cats on a fence). I was out of there when that started.

    Company B – Our CFO's new nickname on the following Monday was "Spanky". Use your imagination on that one…

  21. Anonymous*

    I avoided Christmas parties at one office I worked in when I learned that at least one of my male co-workers liked to take all his clothes off …

  22. Karyn*

    I cannot tell you how much I agree with numbers 1 and 3. I'm in law school at night, and finals are right around this time, so my level of holiday cheer is basically non-existent (then again, I'm a Jew, so Hanukkah isn't really that big a holiday ANYWAY…) and I got so much sh*t from other people at my company, including my boss and the President, for not attending the party. My first excuse was, "I am simply too run-down to attend," which was met with, "Oh, come on, suck it up and come!" So then I went to, "I have finals all this and next week and need to spend that time studying." This was met with, "You can study another night!"

    What ever happened to just saying, "Oh, we'll miss you, but study hard!" instead of giving your employees guilt over not attending a bowling event? Of COURSE I'd attend if I felt like I had the energy, do you think it's FUN for me to sit at home on Friday nights and study rules of civil procedure? Ugh. I may print this list out and tack it to my boss's door. :P

  23. Ang.*

    This year, my husband's department held a party about 40 minutes away. It cost about $20 each, which included dinner (none of the entrees were acceptable, since we're vegetarians). The venue was a combination country-themed restaurant in a barn with entertainment such as barrel racing, and I don't even know what else. The menu online showed that the meals cost much less than the $20 we would have had to pay. Also, the invitation specified that we were to wear "country casual," and while I have only a hazy idea of what that is, I am certain that we don't have it and wouldn't be caught dead wearing it. It's probably unnecessary to say this, but we didn't go. I think they had a very poor turnout, though some of the rednecks he works with probably went.

  24. Cosm0*

    Some of these stories just make me laugh (in that sad, head-shaking, sitting over a beer sort of a way). It often seems that the way senior management handles holiday parties/bonuses is the truest litmus test of just how out of touch they are with the rank and file.

    In the generous spirit of some good-natured one-ups-manship, I'll share this little anecdote from a small company (15-20 people) I once worked for: It was ordained that in lieu of Christmas bonuses and a nice Christmas party, the company would pay for a cruise to Alaska. Awesome! Right?…Wrong. As the details of the event began to take shape we learned the following about the event:

    1) The company would pay only for the basic cost of the cruise. Any additional expenses (alcohol on the ship, souvenirs, meals in port cities, etc.) had to be covered by the employee. OK not to bad so far.

    2) Significant others would not be covered at all. OK somewhat understandable.

    This is where it gets interesting.

    3) The employee had to pay for their airfare from San Antonio TX to Seattle (from where the cruise was leaving) and their hotel stays on either end of the cruise.

    Here's the kicker.

    4) If you didn't go you got nothing. No bonus. No nothing.

    So, most of us on the low end of the totem-pole (salaries in the 30-50k range) simply could not afford the additional $1500 or so in airfare, hotels, and extras to go (without our significant others as well). As it turned out, only the higher-ups wound up going because none of the peons could afford it. Yeah, that's right, all the people with the six-figure salaries got a free Alaskan cruise out of the deal and the rest of us got zilch. Merry Christmas!

    I love the holidays and am happy to celebrate with co-workers. However, I feel very strongly that if the company can't provide something that is truly a "treat" for the employees (and one that EVERYONE can enjoy) they really should just knock it off with the employee-funded potlucks, bowling parties, etc. I think most people can understand if the company simply can't afford to put on a holiday party. But, in that case, leave people the hell alone. Don't create more work for them in the name of "fun"!

    1. Sensible Shoes*

      I feel very strongly that if the company can’t provide something that is truly a “treat” for the employees (and one that EVERYONE can enjoy) they really should just knock it off with the employee-funded potlucks, bowling parties.

      I agree. Where I work, they have the potlucks and the obligatory pizza and that’s it.

      However, we get a company wide email every December that says, “On behalf of our employees, we have donated the sum of $xx,0000, to (some organization).

      I don’t always agree with the organization but it’s something.

  25. Anonymous*

    This is a nice list but no mention of how to appease those that insist ALL celebrations and decorations be put down?

    I do mean put down by people that have no desire for time off, no desire to partake of free food or gifts and no wish to allow anyone else their holiday regardless of how generous.

    If it were up to the aggressive this war against holidays will have us all working 365/24/7. These folks, entitled to their opinion as they may be, can be a nightmare.

  26. Cassie*

    About alcohol – a different dept once threw a bbq lunch (not a holiday party) where they had alcohol. One of the guys in our dept got tipsy (probably not "drunk drunk") and he had to leave work early.

    Our dept's holiday party has evolved over the past several years. It was originally a potluck breakfast and then the dept started footing the bill. It was from 9 to 11am (though you could come and go as you wanted) and there was the usual breakfast items – bagels/cream cheese/lox, muffins, fruit, even an omelet station (made-to-order omelets!).

    And then a couple of years ago, they changed it to lunch with the usual "holiday" food like turkey, ham and mashed potatoes. I prefer the breakfast party because the food was better (something about eating turkey and potatoes in a place that looks like a cafeteria reminds me soup kitchens – not that there's anything wrong with soup kitchens). I wonder if the cost is cheaper to put together a breakfast rather than lunch. And we could take leftovers from the breakfast and eat that for lunch!

    At this year's party, I stayed for about 30 minutes (the party was officially 2 hours long). And then later my boss (who is also the head of the dept) asked me "why did you leave so early?! Did you not want to be tempted to too much food?" Uh… But at least he doesn't mean anything by comments like that. Another supervisor makes a big deal when people don't attend dept parties or if they leave early. She also told her staff that if they don't attend, they must stay at their offices and work. Honestly, I would prefer doing that anyway so it's not like it's really a punishment, but I don't like the idea of HAVING to attend something that is not necessary. It's not like we have clients attend so we need to network or anything.

  27. Class factotum*

    how do you know how clean their kitchens were when they were cooking?

    People who cook tend to take "no thank you" so personally.

    I can't imagine why someone would take your decline personally. :)

  28. JC*

    At my last job, we had the holiday party during work hours from 12pm-2pm. My boss bought all the food and it was very casual and laid back. It was nice to just sit around, chit chat for a bit, eat some good food, and head back to work. Nothing fancy but it did the trick.

    For my current job, we have a several hour dinner party at some restaurant-and-bowling-combo place. You have to travel quite a ways to get there, and honestly I'm not looking forward to it. The menu doesn't look all that great, and bowling doesn't appeal to me whatsoever. The last thing I want is for my co-workers to make me feel uncomfortable about not wanting to bowl. I only plan on staying 2 hours or so, because it will take some time to travel home and I'd prefer to just eat, chat for a bit, and leave. Why drag it out longer? It's also on a Thursday, which, not to be nitpicky, I'd prefer to have it on a Friday so then I could just go home and crash for the weekend! Does that make me a Grinch? ;)

    So yeah, if given the choice, I would ask for that time off from work too!

  29. Jamie*

    LOL Class Factorum – point taken. :)

    At least when I decline all offers of food regardless of the source it allows them to think (know) I'm the one with the issues and it isn't personal. Being an equal opportunity grinch make it easier.

  30. Anonymous*

    And, for the 12th day of company parties my nasty boss gave to me…

    A speech that propped him up and put everyone else down.

    No self indulgent speeches or methods of putting someone on the spot or embarrassing them.

  31. Anonymous*

    Last year my husband's office decided to do a party on a boat. And then we got torrential downpours. Let's just say being trapped on a boat for 3 hours in harsh weather was not my idea of holiday fun. If someone is going to be sick at an office party, it should be due to the open bar, not motion sickness.

  32. Anonymous*

    One more suggestion:

    My employer has the Company Holiday party in a rather fancy venue. However, many of us cannot afford to buy expensive party dresses or suits just for this purpose. Therefore, the "free" holiday party comes with a hidden cost to the many employees that have "business casual" wardrobes that are required to work, but not the $$$ clothes appropriate to the venue.

  33. Jason*

    I have a sorta interesting dichotomy of holiday parties between my work and my wife's. Hers is a dress-up, very nice Christmas party held at a country club. Cocktails, a nice sit-down dinner and dancing. No obligation to show up, no fancy dress requirements, no cover charge. Open bar all night. She works in a medical clinic, and the docs treat the staff quite well.

    I'm a Realtor, and as such am self-employed. Our "Christmas" party is held in early January due to schedule issues. It's at my brokers' (they're husband & wife) house. Very informal. They provide the actual dinner plus some appetizers; we bring a side and a couple bottles of wine or whatever. We eat, drink, talk and play party games or whatever. (Pictionary, as it turns out, can devolve to great ribald hilarity when you've had a few drinks.)

    Both arrangements work quite well. I can't imagine being obligated, either by pressure or its placement during work hours, to attend a company party. It seems like such an affair isn't really a party at all, but one more way for an employer to enforce their will upon you. Ugh.

  34. Jamie*

    Let's not forget that other lovely tradition that, for many of us, comes this time of year.

    The annual performance review.

    Nothing says happy holidays like the brutal self assessment required to prepare properly.

  35. Anonymous*

    So I'm now done with the 4 holiday parties I had to go to this season. Lessons learned:

    – Talking about work at a party is not a gracious or hospitable thing to do at a party with spouses.

    – If it's an at-work party with food, leaving the food out all day for noshing is a surprisingly good morale boost.

    – If you do a sit-down dinner, and you have just one long, long table, it's going to be at least medium awkward because politeness dictates you have to sit next to whoever's on the end even if you don't know or don't like them, and/or because the spouses won't know anyone and will probably spend most of the dinner sitting there looking blank.

    – The big boss always has a chilling effect, especially if s/he doesn't interact with you on a daily basis. Last year's fun silly lunch at the nearby bar and grill was this year's stilted "am i using the right fork" wreck (originally blocked off 2 hours, called after 50 minutes) because the big boss came.

    – We are tired of babysitting your alcoholic spouse, and if you'd left him at home like some people asked you to do, maybe he wouldn't have got drunk and then told the entire restaurant that you just got diagnosed with cancer. (True story from last night. I could've strangled him myself for that, I don't know what stopped his wife.)

  36. Corey*

    This is so right on. I work at a church and not only did he break pretty much every rule here but it was mandatory for us to go and we had to pay $20 a person. I went alone and left my wife at home to save money….cuz I only earn under 1000 a month. He was upset my wife didnt come.

  37. Christine Barger*

    If you hire entertainment be sure to communicate with them…

    It’s important to ask your entertainer what to expect from their show before booking them so that there is no miscommunication or shattered expectations. For example, I am not a typical ventriloquist that does old school stand-up material. I can do that, but my corporate shows are very different, interactive and unique. However, if a company is looking for typical ventriloquist and they hire me, then they could be in for a surprise.

    If the performer is going to be using audience members and your CEO hates participating, then let them know ahead of time so they don’t choose him. I always check with the person that books me whether anyone is off-limits to bring up or playfully tease. That is also the time I make sure to find out if anyone is known to be offensive or vulgar when given the spotlight, so that I may avoid any uncomfortable situations.

    Be clear about any equipment needed. Some performers are self contained acts using their own sound system, lights, etc…while others ask the venue to provide it. The performer should bring this up, but if they don’t…ASK. You don’t want a comic to show up and have no sound system for a 900 seat room in the middle of dinner.

    On that note, also make sure the performance you choose is suitable for the time you want them to perform. A band can perform through dinner, however a speaker or comic is best suited to perform once serve is complete so as not to compete with waitstaff talking to guests and clanking dishes.

    It is generally understood that “Corporate Comedy” is CLEAN comedy…however it never hurts to mention it while booking the act to be on the safe side.

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