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In the wake of the ongoing wave of sexual harassment and assault revelations that are sweeping the landscape, a number of companies are considering limiting their potential exposure to future problems by scaling back on their holiday parties. Vox Media, for example, has reportedly dropped the open bar from its annual bash this year, while citing the following rationale in an email to its employees:
"We recognize that even though alcohol isn’t always the reason for unprofessional behavior, creating an environment that encourages overconsumption certainly contributes to it."
Leaving aside the troubling notion contained within the thought that "alcohol isn't always the reason for unprofessional behavior" (the trouble being that excessive consumption of alcohol around colleagues is unprofessional by definition, and citing it in this way removes the idea of agency from predators, while also opening the door to victim-blaming), it seems to me that, while Vox is on the right track in scaling back its party, it’s doing so for the wrong reason, and not going nearly far enough.
What Vox should be doing: canceling the party altogether.
Why? Let me count the ways.
Reason 1: Office holiday parties are stressful
If you want proof of how stressful holiday parties they are, just cast your eyes around the internet at this time of year. Over here, you've got a guide to surviving the things, with handy tips on not drinking too much, not leering at colleagues, and not damaging company property. Over there, yet more tips on how to make small talk with your boss, or politely break off a conversation with someone who doesn't control your future employment status.
Pro tip: If you need to read and absorb an arsenal of information on how to behave prior to attending an event where you're supposed to be having fun, the chances are that the event is not going to be any fun.
Reason 2: Your colleagues are (mostly) not your friends
Friends, so the saying goes, are the family you choose for yourself. Colleagues, on the other hand, are people you've probably had little to no hand in choosing, who happen to work in the same organization as you because they have a specific skillset that the organization deems valuable enough to pay for.
Can colleagues be your friends? Of course—in fact, many companies try their hardest to hire people who will fit in (i.e. become friendly with) the existing culture.
But even at the most unique, employee-centric company, the majority of your colleagues are not your friends. In fact, in most organizations, they're competitors: When promotion time comes around and there are limited slots available for upward progression, those same people you're trying to bond with over a warm keg and an inevitably inadequate supply of appetizers will gladly do you down to advance their own prospects.
That, in my experience, tends to make for two kinds of conversation at holiday parties with non-friend colleagues: awkward conversation with people you don't know very well; or work chat. The former is a chore, while the latter is, well, work.
Reason 3: All risk, no reward
Here is a list of some things that have happened at office parties I have attended:
1) Someone said or did something stupid that caused them to damage relationships with colleagues, and/or lose face and/or their jobs.
2) The majority of attendees stuck together in clusters of two or three people that most people could have predicted prior to the event’s beginning, staying only long enough to finish the free food/drinks before heading out to an "after-party" consisting of only their small groups.
3) Someone dazzled the boss with their moonwalk skills and got promoted.
Just kidding: The third one never happened.
Face it: The risk-reward equation at a holiday party is extremely one-sided. There are myriad ways to damage your professional standing, and no ways to improve it.
Sure, you could get into a conversation with your boss in which you blow her away with your previously unheralded business acumen—assuming that your boss attends, and that she doesn't spend her time huddled with the people she typically spends most of her time with on a day-to-day basis. Alternatively, if you've got something on your mind, you could always just send an email or set up a meeting during regular business hours.
Reason 4: Too much hype makes for bad parties
Look, I realize that I'm coming across like a combination of Scrooge and the Grinch here, so let me say this: I fully support your desire to socialize with colleagues. I think it's healthy, and important for building team cultures.
But if that's your goal, there are much better ways to do it: ones that don't involve placing burdens on colleagues who either don't drink; live far from the office; are introverted; have children; or have other after-work responsibilities.
You could arrange a meal, or even drinks, with your team. You could do this just because you want to, or to celebrate work or personal milestones and successes.
You could have a team day out—ideally during business hours, with the blessing of management—to a sports event, or a class, a museum, or whatever you might think would be a good fit for the specific personalities involved.
You could arrange a volunteering/service activity.
The point, you might have noticed, is to get people together, but without the expectation that the event itself has to be more than that. Because small-scale spontaneity beats overly-planned, mass-scale celebrations every time. (And I should know: As a native of the country that gave the world Hogmanay, I know all too well the way that feeling like you have to enjoy yourself on a given occasion can, in fact, make it impossible to actually enjoy it.)
So, this holiday season, by all means celebrate your colleagues, and feel free to celebrate with them. But do it on your own terms, and make it meaningful for all involved. And, if you must read advice on how to deal with all the stresses of the office party, here's the only piece you'll ever need: Skip it, and all of those problems that come with it.
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