What Holiday Parties Can Teach You About Your Employees

A holiday party can be a microcosm of everything that’s right—or wrong—with each work group’s dynamics. Notice the bully dominating every conversation, cutting off the meeker members from participating, and notice the personality clashes between the more aggressive, less-sensitive team members and those with gentler temperaments.

This year, holiday parties are getting closer scrutiny amid the sexual harassment epidemic sweeping the country. An article in The New York Times noted the change in holiday party tone, and pointed out this probably is not the year to get drunk and tell off the boss (if it’s ever the year for that). In years past, with so much merriment, a boss might have just laughed it off as a joke, or as drunken rambling. But this year, the article surmises, a more somber tone is prevailing. At least one company described in the article, Vox Media, whose editorial director was fired due to sexual harassment charges, has done away this year with the open bar. Instead, employees each will be given two drink tickets. When those tickets have been exhausted, they will only be served non-alcoholic beverages.

A friend told me that when she was a 25-year-old, in 1995, she quit her job after a holiday party gone bad. She worked at a law firm, and had just successfully taken the test to serve as a notary. They liked her, and she liked them. At the holiday party, the mutual good feelings ended. A manager at the company explained to her that every year the head of the law firm dressed up as Santa Claus, and that he liked all the female employees to sit on his lap—like how children sit on Santa’s lap at the shopping mall. My friend was horrified, and decided that it was not a company she wanted to continue working for. When she quit, her manager was dumbfounded: “You passed the notary exam,” she told my friend. “We thought you might have quit because you were worried you hadn’t passed.” My friend was too embarrassed and insecure at that age to speak up and explain what shouldn’t have needed explaining—that asking female employees to sit in the lap of the company president, while he’s dressed as Santa, is inappropriate.

Are there executives at your company, who if you let them, would want to dress up as Santa and ask the female employees to sit in their lap? If you can imagine that some of your executives would jump at the chance to do that, then you have insight into the people you should have your antenna up about. Or maybe you noticed something like that happening in the past that you not only want to make sure doesn’t happen again, but that you want to file in your brain as a red flag that could indicate a larger problem.

Sometimes a savvy executive can gauge office politics by watching interactions at a holiday party. For example, as I’ve written about extensively in this blog, I’m not crazy about my boss. For the last few holiday parties, I’ve gone to great pains not to have to interact with him at the party. If you notice a small work group in which one, or all, of the employees, are not interacting with their boss, that’s something that should make you scratch your head. It gives you a mental note that you can continue making observations about once back in the office.

What about the person who’s acting as a loud mouth, pushing his way into every clique at the bar? Maybe he’s just a friendly person, who’s an extreme extrovert, but it also might be that the person has an abrasive, disruptive personality that many don’t find productive working with. Another mental note to jot down.

What about the alienated-looking person, or people, hanging out by the food table, or against the wall? Are they just extreme introverts, or are they unhappy and feeling excluded? Even shy, introverted people shouldn’t be in that position at a holiday party in which they already know many, if not all, of the attendees. If they’re standing alone, that tells you they haven’t made friends with anyone at the company. That could indicate a problem if they’ve been with the company for a year or longer.

And is there still room to have fun with all this worry and note-taking? That’s a question I find sad. It seems like, no, there’s not much room for fun at an office holiday party anymore, which is why I dislike them so much that as soon as one is over, I start dreading the next one.

Yet another question to ask yourself about your holiday party: “Why are our holiday parties always so tedious and unenjoyable? What does that say about our corporate culture and comfort with each other?”

If your company is having a holiday party this year, it probably won’t be a drunken bacchanalia. But whether or not you have fun, you might be able to learn something.

Does your company have holiday parties? What are they like? Have you noticed anything useful about employee dynamics, or corporate culture, at your parties that helped you better support and guide the company?

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