the 10 worst office holiday party disasters

I recently asked readers to tell me about their worst office holiday parties, and your stories ranged from giggle-inducing to outright horrifying. Here are 10 of the worst disasters you reported.

1. You’re invited … to work at the party

“I was working in sandwich shop with only six employees. The owner invited all of us to a formal holiday party at his house. I didn’t realize until I showed up – in my only fancy party dress – that I was expected to work the event, serving all the owner’s friends and family!”

2. Temps need not attend

“At my now-years-ago temp job, around mid-December our boss scheduled a holiday lunch at a nice local restaurant. Since it was written on the master calendar and discussed several times in front of us, the other temps and I assumed everyone was invited.

Come the day of the lunch, all of a sudden the regular staff stopped talking to the temps, avoided eye contact and kept whispering amongst themselves. Turns out the temps were NOT invited to their lunch, but no one had the guts to tell us. At lunchtime, the regular staff literally snuck out of the office!

Since we hadn’t received further instructions when they left, the temps went out to lunch on our own so we wouldn’t be there when they got back. Unfortunately, that meant when we got back from lunch we temps walked in on the boss handing our presents to the regular staff; the temps got nothing. Needless to say, the rest of the day was very uncomfortable for everyone.”

3. Frat house run amok

“The CEO threw an evening holiday party at his house, and gave me a half day off to shop for food and drinks, set everything up, and decorate. I did my best but since I was a billing coordinator, not a party planner, it looked a little… askew.

The actual party was like a frat house run amok. The A/P director drank too much and threw up shrimp cocktail on the white shag carpet. The plant manager got into a screaming fight with his wife in the driveway. The chemist was found making out with the loading dock supervisor, who was about 30 years her senior and more importantly not her husband. And I accidentally walked in on the sales director peeing in the unlocked hallway bathroom (which I thought was the coat closet; we were both surprised). The president himself got completely hammered and went around telling people totally inappropriate stories, gave me a giant bear hug that lasted a little too long, and broke the sliding door to his patio.”

4. Forced karaoke – without music

“It was an otherwise ordinary party – dinner and dancing at a local hotel ballroom. But between the dinner and dancing they had karaoke. Not volunteer karaoke, though, and this was before karaoke machines were available. Several small groups of people were coerced into going up and singing, handed the words to the songs printed on paper and made to sing a capella in front of the entire room. It was so painful to watch their embarrassment…. no, I’d go so far as to say humiliation. I wasn’t one of those people, so I have no bitterness, but you have to really think twice about company management that will do that to people. It was downright ugly.”

5. Vacation slides and a bear

“The entertainment consisted of the head of the company showing us his vacation slides to Yosemite at winter time, and then he sang a song about a bear. The slides were beautiful, but just reinforced the difference between the haves and have nots. And it got old after the second carousel.”

6. The worst ice-breaker in the world

“I work at a nonprofit agency of the blind, and a large percentage of our staff is blind. At the last holiday party at my office the upper management hired a DJ and told him to come up with some ice breaker games. The only ice-breaker this DJ could come up with was a game where the players had to keep toilet paper rolls in between their legs, and another player had to use a toilet plunger to try to spear the rolls from between the other persons legs.

What this amounted to was that we had a bunch of blind people thrusting a wooden plunger at each others’ crotches. It did not end well.”

7. Mysterious gift

“In addition to the company-wide party every year, my office has a pizza lunch and white elephant gift swap. It’s totally optional, and you don’t have to bring a gift to still enjoy the pizza. Usually it’s stipulated that the gifts should be around $10 and be something you’d like to receive yourself. Last year, most of the gifts had been opened when one of my co-workers picked up a smallish box and shook it. It rattled like crazy, and when he opened it there were crushed peanut shells inside. No one knew who it was from, and it set a really uncomfortable tone for the rest of the afternoon. To this day, no one has claimed it.”

8. Merry Christmas, here’s a pay cut

“My former boss got drunk, sat me down at the bar and said that he was giving me a raise to [less money than he was currently paying me]. Whoops!”

9. True confessions

“There was a drawing for door prizes, but in order to get your prize, you had to answer a silly question. Like “what did you wear to prom?” or “what was your childhood pet’s name?” And then someone got, “What is the worst thing you have ever done?” A hush fell over the room, and the person turned bright red, muttered something unintelligible, grabbed their $5 Starbucks gift card, and walked away.”

10. A dangerous holiday journey

“A young coworker overindulged in alcohol and somehow managed to miss that the company was offering a car service to help folks get home safely. He proceeded to wander drunkenly through the city trying to make it home, but ended up running into some bad sorts trying to accost him. In trying to escape, he got completely banged up – cuts, bruises, blood, and filthy, torn clothing. At this point, he was so disoriented that he wasn’t not sure how to get home, so he decided to lay down in back of pickup truck parked on the street (this was December, so it was probably 40 degrees outside). An hour or two later, the truck owner spotted him and chased him off. He forgot his bag, which had his MetroCard, so he decided to go back to work and sleep it off under his desk.

Meanwhile, the truck owner sees the nice bag left behind and thinks it was stolen, so he calls the cops, who then go to the address…where the young coworker lives with a now panic-stricken mother. The panic doesn’t abate when no one at work has seen him for hours…until he stumbles out from his desk around 11 a.m.”

{ 65 comments… read them below }

    1. Sasha*

      I’m tempted to do the wrapped shells at my office white elephant. However everyone knows I’m a weirdo and they’ll assume it was me, so that would ruin the fun.

      1. Esra*

        Right? Despite being strangers on the internet, I am so so curious as to who wrapped them up? why? what’s the story there?

        1. Jamie*

          I know, right? Of all the updates I would love one on this. If this were my workplace I wouldn’t be able to think of anything until me and the rest of the Scooby gang solved the mystery.

        2. Anonymous*

          Maybe I’m evil, but I automatically assumed someone has a hate for another with an allergy to peanuts. And crushing them all up could possibly make it easier to contaminate surroundings.

          1. Michelle*

            This sounds like a poorly executed joke that the giver was too afraid to admit to, since it made everyone uncomfortable.
            He/she could’ve just said so and made sure the recipient’s feelings weren’t hurt by offering to buy her a fancy xmas coffee or something for a make-it-up gift.
            Just my take…

    2. Hannah*

      At one of my old jobs, we had a similar wrapped shells incident. Someone brought in a box of random nails, bolts, and paperclips wrapped up.

      It was the same thing as the OP’s white elephant — everyone else brought in nice/reasonable things, like Starbucks gift cards, or small Bath & Body Works sets.

      The only difference was everyone knew who brought in the nails/bolts/paperclips box and it was AWESOME because the guy was an asshole and I was thrilled that he was so embarrassed.

    3. bo bessi*

      Because I know everyone’s dying for a sequel, the peanut shells made another appearance this year. Along with a Justin Beiber tree ornament. And the giver is still a mystery.

      1. Caroline*

        WHAAAT!? Well, that throws my theory out the window.

        But it sounds like the person still thinks it’s funny. Strange.

  1. Anonymous*

    I’m so glad to have never experienced a holiday party, our summer “cookouts” were bad enough.

  2. Stephanie*

    Wow. These make me grateful that our holiday party is a pretty low-key weeknight happy hour.

    My last job, we did have to pay to attend our holiday party.

  3. Anonymous*

    Yay, mine was selected! (The karaoke one) that company had so many issues that I gathered more war stories from it than any of the other companies I’ve worked for.

    My current company did a really truly nice holiday party last year. Cocktail dress, in a hotel ballroom. They’d set up lots of those standing cocktail tables with no chairs, and buffets loaded with finger food on each side of the room, plus open bar. It was relaxed and fun and the standing tables encouraged mingling without making people feel cornered. Oh, and it was a Thursday night and publicized with an early end time to discourage drunken behavior. No horror stories there!

  4. Cindy*

    I worked at a company with satellite offices around the world, and we occasionally got emails about doings at other offices that were accidentally sent company-wide. The day after the Australian office had its Christmas party we got one that said, among other things, “okay, who threw up in the fax machine last night?”

  5. Anon*

    Most the employees at my company work at client sites. In some cities, there happen to be quite a few of us in one area, and those groups usually have some sort of get-together. For the last couple of years, there have been several people who work in the same city, but have different managers (who are in completely different parts of the country – for example, I have never met my manager in person). So there have been no holiday get-togethers in the last few years. Now I live in a city where I’m the only person from our company. In our monthly phone call last week, my manager said something about there being a $15 per person limit for any holiday get-together, so for those of us who are not near other employees, he was thinking of getting us a holiday card with a $15 gift card inside. That is fine with me. I enjoyed socializing with my co-workers when we could do that in the past, but since it’s not possible now, I would appreciate getting something (instead of nothing).

  6. Caroline*

    It’s kind of too bad about the wrapped shells, since it sounds like someone thought that ‘white elephant’ meant what it’s supposed to mean: something crazy, a joke gift that you just take from home for free and wrap. They get to opening presents and this person sees that ‘white elephant’ means something completely different, and decides to stay quiet in the hopes that no one saw them walk in with the gift.

    I would suspect the new person. :-/ Were the gift exchange rules explained? If they were, maybe the person forgot or was just going by the original definition. White elephant gift exchanges can be so funny and shells would probably get a laugh. :)

    1. Caroline*

      what am I SAYING. It’s a terrible white elephant gift however you look at it.

      I guess I just think most people wouldn’t be up for that kind of embarrassment, so if they had known, they definitely wouldn’t have done it. All the people that cheat on these kinds of exchanges usually spend more. Everyone knows that it says so much about the giver that you have to save face.

    2. LL*

      That’s a good theory. At my previous employer, the definition of white elephant = gag gift. Fake vomit and butt itch powder were classics, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see peanut shells.

      Thank goodness I know that the above isn’t the only version of the white elephant exchange. My current employer also has a white elephant, but I get the sense that peanut shells would not be welcome.

      1. Jamie*

        Fake vomit and butt itch powder

        Okay employers…listen up. Money and time. If you want to reward your employees give them money and some PTO or cut them loose early.

        With money and time we can buy our own fake vomit and the butt itch powder of our choice, or you know…something we can actually enjoy.

        Seriously, this cracked me up but it really just spurred me to drive the point home one more time. Give them time off with pay and money – that is your recipe for employees that don’t send in anecdotes about the worst holiday workplaces of all time.

      2. JP*

        Confession (no, I’m not the Peanut Person, but just as bad!): As Caroline guessed above, I had only ever heard of White Elephants as being terrible gag gifts. We were in college. We had a $5 budget. I forgot to buy something and ran out of time. On the way to the party, I spotted the brick that had been holding the door open and thought it would be funny to wrap it up. ::Headsmack::

        Of course, everyone else bought really nice and thoughtful gifts, and the girl who “got” mine was PISSED. I was so embarrassed, I gave her my gift and decided that, from then on, if I forgot to buy something I wouldn’t participate!

        1. Caroline*

          Well, what a gracious way to deal with the situation. :)

          There’s no way I would be pissed if someone wrapped a brick and I ended up with it. It would probably make me laugh (it’s so funny that it’s perfectly gift-shaped and easy to wrap), because it is so clearly a joke and I’m definitely not going to worry about 5 bucks.

          These gift exchanges drive me crazy. I mean, think about it: these gifts are for NO ONE IN PARTICULAR. And that is why I avoid participating, if I can. I only buy gifts for specific people. So a secret santa idea is one I would consider but not a game where you get a random gift or try to end up with the best one of the bunch.

          1. JP*

            You know, from all of AAM’s posts over the past month, I think that I have to be the only one in the world who loves these games and parties–usually. It really depends on the people/context.

            This year, I’m super-excited about our party because I love my company and co-workers (we all have the same twisted humor) and can’t wait to socialize with them some more. My contract is also up with the company in January, and this is a good time to network with other departments so that I can hopefully stay on!

            There have been other years (and other companies), however, where I’ve spent the entire event fantasizing about pulling my eyes out with a rusty spoon.

            I have to say that I’m glad that you would have seen the humor in the brick, though. I liked it for the same reason! I thought it was very clever…until it wasn’t.

            1. Jamie*

              I think it’s awesome you feel that way about your co-workers – as you can see its not exactly a universal sentiment, so I’d treasure the situation if I were you.

              Fwiw I think the brick thing was wicked clever. I’d have laughed.

              1. JP*

                Final update, I swear: just got back from White Elephant shopping. This year I put together a gift bag with a bubble shooter gun, water balloons, and the little plastic parachute men that you throw off the roof. If everyone in my dept is too classy for it (or too classy to give it to some kids), we have a perfectly good Toys for Tots collection going on! Win-win-win. :-) (It was either that or 3 bottles of 3-buck-chuck, and most of my dept have better taste than that!)

                Also, SUPER excited that the brick idea is catching on! (See Waerloga’s post below). Happy holidays! Bricks for everyone! Though I have to admit that the gift card with it is a great idea!

  7. ChristineH*

    Oh goodness, I missed the toilet paper one the first time around. That must’ve been extreeeeeemely awkward. Did the DJ know many of the participants were blind? *goes to find original post*

    1. ChristineH*

      And I see that a bunch of other people loved that one as well. So the DJ said that it was his idea of an “adapted game”?? I am an advocate in the disability field (who happens to be visually impaired as well), and you Mr. DJ, get a big fat F!! :P

    2. Elizabeth West*

      Blind or not, the implications of the plunger handle into a toilet roll orifice had me cringing, even while I was laughing. What a hilariously awkward and inappropriate game to play at work!

  8. Blinx*

    Yeah! My bear song and slides story made the top ten! Almost makes the evening worth it.

    On another note, I just got together with some former coworkers and asked if the department was having a Christmas lunch this year. Due to budget cuts, they weren’t having one. But in order to improve morale, everyone was asked to bake cookies for a cookie swap. Hmm. A free lunch vs. spending your own time and money baking cookies? Gee, thanks! Plus, other departments ARE going out. Bah-humbug!

    1. Jamie*

      I baked Christmas cookies this weekend and I probably dropped $80 on the ingredients.

      Obviously more than a batch or two for work, but baking is not inexpensive. Probably why except for the odd batch of brownies I only do it this time of year.

      (Yeah, I don’t do it because I religiously like to avoid my kitchen except for the ice and coffee makers …but it’s still pricey.)

    2. Ellie H.*

      We got asked to bake cookies for a cookie swap too, next Monday. I realllly don’t want to, and I didn’t *have* to, but I signed up anyway to be pro-social. It’s six women and two men in our office so it seems sort of gender roles-y too (although one of the men brought in a fruit cake today). I invited our IT guy.

      We are getting a holiday lunch though which I think will be nice, and I got to pick the place (a really great French-Cambodian restaurant).

      1. Jamie*

        Fruit cakes fascinate me since I’ve truly never known anyone who likes them. I see them all the time but have never seen anyone eat a slice.

        1. Waerloga*

          It’s an acquired taste. Happily my mother always makes my Scottish grannies recipe every year.

          You’re right though… Not too many takers for it. Mind you, FCL (Fruit Cake Lovers) really love it!

          Course We also like Haggis…

          Take care

        2. S.L. Albert*

          I love fruitcake. Not the store bought kind, but homemade fruitcake is delicious. I have a great many wonderful memories of breakfast during the holiday being a slice of fruitcake. And just like Waerloga, the recipe from the Scots side of the family. Maybe it’s genetic.

  9. mimimi*

    I thought a white elephant exchange was supposed to be cheap gifts that are “so awful they’re funny”? Are they supposed to be something inexpensive but nice?

    The peanut shells are just bizarre – that’s garbage fer cryin’ out loud.

    1. Laura L*

      Yeah, I always thought white elephant gifts were just things you had at home that you didn’t want anymore… That’s what I always do for those types of things.

    2. Suz*

      I thought the same thing. I’ve never heard of anyone giving nice white elephant gifts. The white elephant party I went to was a housewarming party. I brought them a dead houseplant.

  10. Chocolate Teapot*

    With a bit of imagination, you can often pick up decent bits and pieces from the Pound/Euro/Dollar shop. (Novelty snowman mugs, santa candles etc.)

    It’s our office Secret Santa gift exchange tomorrow. Some very interesting shaped parcels have been under the office Christmas tree for over a week now. I wonder what will be inside? (Although based on last year, everyone got various boxes of chocolate!)

  11. Kelly O*

    We got an email today that informed us our Christmas party next Monday will be potluck and we should “please plan on having a good time.”

    I skipped the “Dirty Santa” thing last year and am hopeful I can dodge it this year too. I am so very, very tired of that game, especially here.

    So Merry Christmas, we’re only giving you Christmas Day off, you’ll have to bring your own party, and we’ll probably make people clock out even if they’re answering phones the whole party… welcome to retail hell.

      1. Jamie*

        I have no idea what this is, either, and I am afraid to google it at work in case there are other meanings.

      2. Kelly O*

        It’s basically sort of like White Elephant, except you bring some sort of non-gender-specific gift, they’re all wrapped up under the tree and you pick numbers. The first person picks, the second can either take theirs or choose another gift.

        All sorts of variations on how many times an item can be passed or stolen.

        Our office gathers up the freebies we get from the office supply company, and they supplement with other things, so we don’t actually bring anything.

        And there is almost always someone who gets WAY too attached and acts a fool about what they got. We have one person (guess who?) who likes to say she doesn’t get too carried away, but admits she likes “being mean” and taking something if it’s clear someone else wants it. And then proceeds to get angry if she doesn’t get the gift she wants. During Christmas there are like, half a dozen like that.

        I just can’t get excited about the party – between the lack of benefits, the fact I still have “you fired my husband and threw our family into chaos right before the holidays” in the back of my mind, and the whole angsty “there is truly no future here, just day in and out of data entry and repetitive questions” – it is hard to want to participate in all the forced camaraderie.

  12. anon-2*

    My favorite thing is a gag gift – which surrounds a good one.

    I used to make fun of a co-worker’s selection of automobiles – and so – I made a “repair kit” – geared for his car – and wrapped it up with a slick looking wrapper.

    It was a box of bubble gum – but inside was a $15 gift cert for the neighborhood music store. It’s all about fun.

    1. Waerloga*

      Hmm… I was going to do that with the brick idea above . Place a Coffee card (Tim’s or SBux) on the brick, wrap it and watch people avoid choosing it…

  13. M-C*

    I once got lured to a holiday party which sounded so good – a cruise on the bay! What could be more lovely than a bit of nature to improve the office environment? Let me simply point out that jumping into freezing water isn’t really an option when the proceedings get a bit over-imbibed, an easy escape route is essential to any party..

  14. Lily*

    I really wanted to add a crazy party story but I felt weird because it actually happened at US News & World Report’s holiday party; I was too embarrassed because I know that Alison often freelances for them. I have a feeling the party in question is still legend there even thought it happened 15 years ago.

  15. Chocolate Teapot*

    Well, today’s office Secret Santa went quite well. I got a giant 1 kg box of good chocolate, which was almost identical to the giant 1 kg box of chocolate I received last year.

    Other colleagues got champagne, gift vouchers, whisky, perfume and a small model elf on skis.

    Covered in glitter.

  16. FRibs*

    Our department isn’t having a holiday party this year because management and the morale team dropped the ball and the morale funds were withdrawn by corporate (they do this every year). In fairness we possibly can still have a party, but it would be employee funded and the manager would have to okay it on work time. We were notified of this in an email. The next email was someone from the morale team asking people to sign a Holiday card and donate money to the manager so he could take his family to dinner.

  17. Anon*

    Ugh, I became That Person this year. Holiday party, umpteen glasses of wine, and long story short, coworker and I having sex on the floor of his office.

    Yeah, I’m classy. The party wasn’t in the office, it was at a venue 10 minutes away, and I don’t think anyone saw us leave together.

    1. anon.*

      whoa! thats pretty bad.. but,.. pick yourself up, dust yourself off, hold your head high… and pretend it never happened. And forgive yourself. It happened and you can’t make it unhappen – but you (very likely) won’t let anything like that happen again.

      Jedi hugs!

  18. Jamie*

    Not quite a disaster – but kind of funny so feel free to laugh at me.

    Holiday party is going on right now…I was there for the presentation part (of course) and will go back for the raffle and mingling in a little bit, but there are too many people eating in a smallish space right now for me and I couldn’t breathe so I escaped for the lunch portion.

    Anyway during my boss’s excellent and well thought out presentation about the state of the company his mom took his pre-school daughter out of the room for a sec and she asked me to hold her stuffed penguin until she got back.

    I love penguins, don’t have to ask me twice! So my boss is speaking and I’m holding this thing and holy crap – it starts chirping. It’s motorized…flapping it’s wings and making noise and there is NO off button!

    I tried hiding it under my cardigan, asking HR to help me, nothing worked until I clamped it’s beak together. Turns out if you stop the beak the chirping is silent and the flapping is easily hidden by a sweater.

    I never thought “inadvertently activating a noisy toy penguin during a formal company wide presentation” would be a faux pas I should have worried about.

    Fortunately I work for people with a sense of humor.

    1. FRRibs*

      Totally off topic (sorry), but one thing I learned via parenthood was that Toys That Make Noise are the perfect gift for people you don’t like with children. “Can you touch my…belly?” Winnie the Pooh…I still shudder thinking of it.

  19. JP*

    Amazing! I do believe you are a winner in “most awkward holiday work situation”…and handled it well!

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