How to Keep Holiday Parties from Getting out of Hand

Are you planning a party for your small business? Read our tips on how to keep the cost and behavior under control, while keeping spirits high


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Tips for throwing a successful holiday party at work

It’s that time of year again — workspaces are festively decorated, employees are getting excited for the holidays, and parties fill up our calendar.

It’s a time of good cheer – the coming of the close of the year and the anticipation for what’s coming in the next.

For many companies, the holiday party is the social event of the season. For others, it’s also a social disaster.

There are many ways your good intentions can go south. It can be an overzealous party planner or one who considers the event frivolous.

Theme parties or events that require complex costumes or contributions can make the effort seem more like work than enjoyment. Financial guidelines may be considered suggestions rather than facts. Entertainment and food choices can bust the budget.

And, of course, there’s the problem of behavior that isn’t appropriate. Making sure the event that’s meant to celebrate the season and your staff, rather than an annual debacle, starts with careful planning well in advance.

Planning on the planners

If you don’t have a party planning committee or team, you should. When there’s only one person in charge, the event can be more a reflection of their idea of fun than the larger group.

Making sure the event that’s meant to celebrate the season and your staff, rather than an annual debacle, starts with careful planning well in advance.  

If your party planner’s point of view is “we’ve always done it this way,” it’s probably time to mix it up. Ask for volunteers to help – and try to set up a committee with an odd number of people. That way if anything goes to a vote, you won’t end up with a tie.

Planning should begin well in advance of the event. If you’re looking at off-site locations, the earlier you can book the better. If the party will be in-house and catering is required, you’ll want to get your preferred meals on the books. Nothing can turn a simple party into an unmanageable mess more than waiting until the 11th hour to book a venue or plan a menu.

Tone down themes

Unless you’ve racked up millions of dollars in sales and have nowhere to spend it, theme parties can easily get out of hand.

Decorations, food, and entertainment all targeted to a specific theme can be costly and complex. Keep it simple — it’s about the employees, not the event. While you want to create an atmosphere that’s festive, there’s no need to order hand-lettered invitations or servers in Dickensian costume.

Look for ways to be creative that aren’t over the top.

Take the pressure off contests

For some party planners, an event without a contest is like a day without sunshine. But mandatory fun isn’t fun at all.

If you do have contests, make sure they’re voluntary. Ugly Christmas Sweater contests can be a silly way to entertain the crowd, but they can be costly for employees.

To get them in on the fun, make it a contest, but don’t make it a commitment.

Make a budget and stick to it

If your party planning team’s mantra is “budgets are made to be broken,” it’s time to reassign. If your party budget hasn’t changed in a decade, however, you might want to read up on inflation rates.

The largest line items in a party budget are typically food and alcohol, and planning ahead can help. Ask your party team to get some quotes on what it will cost to feed the crew, with options up and down the line.

If you want to serve higher-end foods, they may recommend taking alcohol off the table (literally and figuratively). If they’re satisfied with more family-style fare, you may be able to splurge a bit more on other items.

Food costs should be the first item decided upon. Once that’s determined, everything else on the party planners’ wish lists should stay within the budgetary guidelines.

Professional partying?

Keeping business parties respectful can be a major task. We want employees to let their hair down and have fun, but they need to stay on the right side of socialization.

One survey found 20% of workers binge drink at holiday parties

That can be a challenge for many. Professional etiquette at social events isn’t something taught. For most employees, finding out who behaved badly at a party (and what they did – often gossip fodder for months) after the event is too little too late. It might not be a bad idea to make some gentle suggestions.

Festive, not Festivus

A silly reminder that the party shouldn’t include the “airing of grievances, feats of strength, hanging on poles or citing miracles” is a great way to remind staff to keep it light.

A Festive/Not Festivus flyer can be a fun way to get the message across. Cutting loose a bit doesn’t mean losing respect for others. Remind employees your brand is respectful and inclusive, even when off the clock, and that behavior that’s out of bounds may need to be addressed later.

No D&D

No, not Dungeons and Dragons, drunk and disorderly. Alcohol consumption is generally the first step to poor party behavior.

One survey found 20% of workers binge drink at holiday parties. They found half of companies that have parties serve alcohol, with 88% of employees partaking. However, less than half regulate the amount of drinks employees are served.

When drinking is part of the party mix, almost two-thirds of employees in the poll witnessed inappropriate comments being made. Almost 30% saw their colleagues drive drunk, which can result in injury that may circle back to employer liability.

If you must serve alcohol, remind employees to know and stick to their limits. Some organizations lock their doors and party during the workday, so employees cannot indulge.

If your party is at a nearby venue, choose one that doesn’t serve liquor, if possible, or tell the venue servers must limit to 1 or 2 drinks per person. Plan on monitoring consumption carefully if you don’t set limits in advance with staff or the venue. Have designated drivers and rideshare apps ready for staffers who shouldn’t be behind the wheel. While no one wants to be the party pooper, no one wants problems or accidents either.

To party or not to party

Finally, is a party really what employees want? In one poll, 90% of workers said they’d rather have a bonus or extra vacation days in lieu of a holiday party. That same survey found more than half of workers don’t look forward to their company’s annual party.

Weighing the amount of time, risk, effort, and resources put into a party against what employees really want – a bit more cash or a day off later next year – may be worth considering.

Ask your staff what they’d prefer — after all, it’s about celebrating them as much as the holiday season.


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