Service projects, ‘mystery trips’ are among employers’ alternatives

Is the annual company holiday party still a thing?

In recent years, many companies have downsized their holiday parties to less lavish affairs or hosted other types of events that replaced the traditional after-hours holiday soiree.

The decision whether to host a holiday party may come down to cost or employee interest.

Moving away from the traditional party “seemed to come along with businesses becoming more budget-conscious in the aftermath of the recession, but it is also consistent with the business trend of focusing on company culture,” said Catherine Wragg, senior vice president for human resources at TriNet, headquartered in Dublin, Calif., which provides HR services to small and midsize businesses. “Using that holiday budget to have more meaningful team-building activities throughout the year helps employees engage with the company on a more consistent basis and contribute their time and skills in a way that is focused on building community.”

Could a Holiday Party Become a Liability?

One reason companies may choose events other than the traditional party to celebrate the holidays could be the desire to avoid potential liability. An employer could be held responsible for any activities that happen during the party, and some companies have decided the risk may not be worth it, Wragg said.

Employment attorneys agree that holiday parties can be risky for employers.

“More bad behavior occurs at company holiday parties than at any other time of year,” said Mark F. Kluger, attorney and partner at Kluger Healey LLC in Fairfield, N.J. “The combination of the holiday season, pent-up feelings about co-workers and, most importantly, alcohol often lead to uninhibited behavior ranging from sexual harassment to expressions of intolerance.”

Adam Gutmann, an associate practicing employment law at Cozen O’Connor in Houston, noted that “given the prevalence of the #MeToo movement, some employers are giving common risk factors [at holiday parties]—namely alcohol—additional thought.”

Last year, Kluger Healey decided to throw a nontraditional holiday event—a bowling outing for employees and their significant others. This year, the firm is having a “hatchet-throwing party” in lieu of a workplace holiday party. The event will be hosted at Stumpy’s Hatchet House, where participants literally throw weapons at targets.

Community Service Projects, Team-Building Trips Might Be Preferable.

Jim Bell Sr., president and founder of Abel HR based in Cranbury, N.J., said one of his favorite ways to celebrate the holiday season is to have employees participate in a service project together.

“One idea is to distribute toys to underprivileged and needy children in the community,” he said. “I always recommend choosing a local organization to partner with to have an impact where employees live and work. When employees end their workday at noon and spend the rest of the day together having a light lunch and wrapping presents for others, it becomes a team-building activity while increasing the holiday spirit.”

Other community service projects, such as collecting items for a local food pantry or running a mitten and hat drive for a homeless shelter, can also be strong team-building activities during the holiday season.

Katy Cooper, an event planner at NKP Medical, a medical marketing agency in Los Angeles, recommends doing a “mystery trip” as an alternative to the standard holiday party.

Dave Green, founder of Mystery Trip in Los Angeles, is a former HR professional who sought to unite employees through fun experiences. Participants go on an hours-long or daylong excursion and follow clues that lead them to a surprise at the end of the event.

“Doing a mystery trip opens the door to encourage team building and building relationships among people in the different teams of the company; doing this leads to experiences and memories that will last longer than a cocktail party,” Cooper said.

Employers might want to consider not doing an event at all. According to a TriNet survey, 73 percent of employees would prefer a cash bonus during holiday time, while 51 percent favor having extra paid time off between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Because December can be a busy time for many people, a traditional holiday party could feel like an obligation to employees, Wragg noted.

“Some employers are noticing this and are opting for low-key employee lunches during business hours or a party in January or [at] another time of year,” she said.

Elaina Loveland is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.