View from HR: Know the purpose of a holiday work event

It is the time of year for workplace lunches, dinners, pot luck events, Christmas parties and celebrations. Some will turn out well because the purpose was clear and the event supported that purpose. Others might become sad social media stories people tell about “my company party”.

If you go to the trouble and expense of planning a celebratory event, it should be the best it can be within the budget allowed. Doing a bad job trying to have fun and act social might be worse than never trying.

You see, most workplace events have a business purpose, do not include outsiders and are alcohol-free. Expectations land in narrow ranges. Donuts are a nice surprise. Information is communicated and decisions are made. Maybe you have a few humorous moments mixed with the tense ones. Done.

Holiday purpose

When an employer decides “we want to get together, enjoy each other, celebrate the season and perhaps invite significant others” it sets up a very different expectation. It is easy to fail by using the workplace meeting mindset.

Deciding the purpose of a holiday event is key. Is it to thank folks for hard work? Is it to celebrate business success in years with good budget performance (and not in others?). Is it to meet and reacquaint with significant others? Is it to help create a sense this is a good place to work and give appreciation on a personal level? Is it to involve everyone in helping a charitable organization at the same time? Is it a projection of the owner’s religious beliefs?

All of these purposes have their place, but they are very different from a business meeting and from each other.

Should people just be grateful you bought them lunch or dinner? That sounds like the manager who believes a bi-monthly paycheck is the only thanks needed.

Call it what it is

Most people are appropriately grateful for anything that is presented in a genuine, thoughtful and purposeful manner. Problems arise less from what is presented and more from how it is presented.

If your budget is low or prep time is short, why describe the gathering as something it clearly was not designed to be? Call it a “thank you lunch” or a “year-end break” with work friends. Call it what it is and plan it accordingly.

Polluting social events with excessive talk of business is another problem. Remember the purpose and stick to it. Guests want to meet their spouse/friends co-workers, not hear the boss drone on after two glasses of wine. Make the guests feel welcomed and have fun.

Alcohol is not required for a good party, but the decision to serve it raises issues. Each setting varies. There are no absolutes except safety. Consider carefully your group’s habits, your company culture, individual past behaviors, type/quantity of alcohol service and how to limit or respond to excesses. Two drink tickets and a company-paid taxi are common strategies.

Make the most of holiday and social events by honoring their purpose.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit