team celebrations

The holidays are coming – 9 things to think about when planning your office party

Tis the season! This is the time of year for party planning and merrymaking as the calendar year draws to a close.

But how often do we actually make office parties and gatherings fun for everyone?

Those of us who’ve been leaders for a decade or two or more (cough) remember when Christmas parties included a tipsy Santa making off-colour remarks and sometime later when inclusive party planning in December meant calling the office celebration a Holiday Party instead of a Christmas Party. Thankfully, we’ve moved even further in the last few years.

Let’s look at office celebrations a little more broadly and in a way that is more useful not just in December, but whenever you decide to throw a party or celebrate as a team.

When done well, party-planning is more than just putting together a festive occasion. It’s an opportunity to build relationships and strengthen your team. Chances are, at the root of it, you’re having a party to show appreciation.

That means throwing a party that doesn’t leave anyone on the sidelines, feeling awkward or (worse!) offended in some way. And that takes some thought. 

Here’s what you need to consider before you hit send on that invitation:

Diversity is about more than you might think

Most workplaces are comprised of a diversity of people and often we think of this in terms of religious traditions. At some point in the early 90s, North American corporations realized that not everyone celebrates Christmas (hence the Holiday Party!) and that many cultural traditions are valued and celebrated.

While this is a valid consideration, diversity is more than just multiculturalism. Yes, there are those of us who identify as Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, pagan, atheist or agnostic. We’re likely hearing about plans for big celebrations from Hanukkah to Christmas to Kwanzaa or Winter Solstice. 

We all come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences and lifestyles — and differences can be more than cultural and religious markers. 

For instance, you might have a colleague who has recently lost a partner (widowed, divorced or otherwise) who feels awkward if invitations are for team members and significant others. Statistically speaking, several of us will work alongside people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community — some of whom might not be “out” at work. 

There could be others who are sober or, perhaps, struggling with sobriety and not interested in open bars and a big emphasis on drinking.

More and more these days, workplaces employ people of diverse abilities. Your team members may be deaf or hard of hearing, on the autism spectrum or use a wheelchair or other support for mobility.  

Parents of young children have different demands on them, as do those who are caring for aging family members (or the “sandwich generation” folks who are caring for both!). 

Another consideration when we’re thinking of diversity is diet. You may have vegetarian or vegan colleagues as well as those who don’t eat pork or shellfish for religious or cultural reasons. Then there are also allergies to things like gluten, peanuts or tree nuts.

At this point, you might be thinking, “it’s just not worth it — I can’t satisfy everyone!”

Take the opportunity to unite instead of divide

When leaders understand the diverse make-up of their team members, they can plan accordingly so that everyone feels comfortable celebrating together.

It helps to focus on celebrating what you have in common rather than concentrating on the differences. (And remember — there are other simple ways to thank your team — you can think beyond a party!)

If you try to incorporate some religious or cultural celebrations into an event (for instance, decorating with a Menorah and a Kwanzaa kinara with seven candles on either side of Christmas tree), odds are you’ll leave someone feeling left out or disgruntled.

Instead, focus on your work together during the last 12 months. You’ve made it through another calendar year!

Here are some ideas to make your holiday gatherings and other celebrations inclusive:

  • Pick a neutral theme instead of tying your celebration to a particular holiday tradition. Think snowflakes, pinecones and cedar or colour themes like black & white or blue & silver. Trust me: You can be festive and celebratory of “the season” without pulling out the Santa decorations!
  • How do you think your team members would like to celebrate? Maybe everyone would like a late night and fancy dinner, but is it possible they’d rather have a family-friendly event during the day or a long lunch? Sometimes after work soirees or group activities are a hit. The best parties are going to have a broad appeal, so ask your team. If everyone is indicating they’re already busy, perhaps opt to hold a celebration in the New Year or on your company’s anniversary date.
  • Parents or caregivers on your team? You might want to offer money for a babysitter or caregiver to make it less stressful for team members to attend (not just cab fare home!).
  • Not everyone wants to drink and party. Many cultures are uncomfortable with alcohol and some team members may choose not to drink for other reasons. Choose a venue that allows everyone to feel comfortable and ensure that you word the invitation so that it’s clear this is not just a booze fest (for example, “Network & Chill” feels different than “Happy Hour”). Drinks menu? Offer non-alcoholic drinks that are fun and festive, too.
  • Instead of wording an invitation to include a “spouse” or “date,” invite your team members to bring a plus one. This way people won’t feel awkward if their guest is a good friend or family member other than a romantic partner — and no one feels obliged to explain the relationship when they RSVP!
  • Think about your menu. Your venue should ideally be able to offer vegetarian and non-vegetarian options (and many of those will also work for those who are gluten-free). Ask people to let you know about dietary needs or allergies when they RSVP so that you’re not taken by surprise.
  • Check that the venue is accessible to people who are differently-abled and perhaps easily accessible by transit — whatever things are important to your team members. You don’t want to be the leader who chooses an exclusive venue that is formal and difficult for people to get into when everyone wants something informal and relaxing.
  • Think about the soundtrack to your event. Plan for music that will provide the right ambience and allow for conversation. Too often, parties are drowned out by loud music and that doesn’t let people get to know each other. Consider something like big band, soft classical music or mellow contemporary music as a backdrop. If there’s dancing, make sure the DJ takes requests and can cater to diverse musical tastes.
  • When you, as a leader, speak at the event, focus on celebrating your team rather than the season. It’s easy to slip into the same-old, tried-and-true wishing you all a wonderful holiday season. Instead, talk about what great work everyone has accomplished in 365 days together — as a team. Talk about how proud you are to be a part of this team.  If the hours have been long, thank family, friends and loved ones who are in the room. This way your celebration will be part of building a company culture of growth and happiness (not just a party!).

Build respect among colleagues

Choices you make as a leader can help to strengthen the relationships of your team members. 

If you want to have an inclusive workplace, model this by making decisions that show you’ve thought about your team members individually and collectively.

This means remembering to consider special dates or occasions that your team members may be observing. You don’t want to offer to take your team for a huge lunch when someone on your team is fasting for Ramadan or Advent. 

If someone asks for time off for a religious occasion or family obligation, honour that. Meetings and important deadlines can be set accordingly. This is when floating holidays are a real incentive for diverse workplaces.

Encourage your team to share their heritage if they want to bring food to share or talk about their celebrations. That company calendar? Include multi-cultural events and important dates for diverse backgrounds so that people are aware of what’s important outside of what they see as important.

Be sensitive to what’s important to your team members and what demands or obligations they may have outside the office. Again, this is bigger than party planning; it’s about ways you retain your top talent.

Coach’s Questions

Has how you look at diversity changed over time? What could you do better to make your celebrations more inclusive? What would you like to change with work celebrations? How can you take all this into consideration without making it a chore?