The View From Taft

As the year comes to a close and we experience a slew of Christmas parties both in our professional and personal lives, stress levels heat up despite the supposedly cool December weather. Christmas parties at home, in school, or at the office have become a ubiquitous part of our lives.
The long Christmas celebration in the country culminates with a series of Christmas parties that make us joyful and jolly, but also make us cringe and cry at the thought of forced, farcical, and Freudian performances. Toward the end of the year, we usually receive a memo from the Human Resources (HR) Department asking us to come up with performances depicting the year’s supposedly innovative and original theme.
We are tasked to come up with performances to match even the toughest talent competitions, in which singing and dancing have become commonplace. Sadly, some of us have to perform tortuous numbers during which we gyrate, grind, and grope each other to the beat of novelty songs that would make us, in our Christian upbringing, cringe. I have encountered all of these banalities as performer, judge, audience, and lurker during Christmas parties.
In her Harvard Business Review article titled “4 Reasons to Kill the Office Holiday Party — and One Reason to Save It,” Julia Kirby states, “it’s time to rethink the point of the holiday party, and whether it’s still having anything like its desired effect.” Holiday parties are expected to “do a few good things for the workplace: to encourage coworkers to get to know each other informally; to appreciate and celebrate the year’s good work by all; to remind everyone that they are part of one company.” However, several studies have proven all of these otherwise.
What then can be done to save the year-end parties from becoming stressors and make them more special for everyone?
One of the main problems that Kirby pointed out is that people do not actually mingle in parties. In fact, Paul Ingram and Michael Morris of Columbia University, in their study entitled “Do People Mix at Mixers?,” pointed out that “guests did not mix as much as might be expected in terms of making new contacts.” People were likely to mix with people they already know, so holiday parties should not be venues for people who do not know each other. Organizations can thus let people sit with their friends to minimize their stress.
Another problem is that “there may be more downside risk than upside opportunity,” especially when alcohol is served. Some studies have uncovered “unwanted sexual advances having taken place at holiday parties,” with some performers and performances being highly suggestive and offensive, and, thus, possible “minefields” for harassment. Supposedly funny and frivolous banter may be misconstrued as degrading and derogatory when taken piecemeal and out-of-context and displayed on social media platforms.
However, these parties do serve an important purpose: to bring everyone together as one organization. Despite awkwardness and anxiety, people still anticipate this season. Even in the absence of “engagement, integration, or collaboration,” office Christmas parties — according to Lee Bolman and Terry Deal, in their Four Frame Model in their book titled Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership — are part of a leader’s symbolic gesture “to address people’s needs for a sense of purpose and meaning in their work.” Bolman and Deal continue that this gesture “includes creating a motivating vision, and recognizing superb performance through company celebrations” because, in this season of joy and hope, we remember the real reason why we celebrate Christmas — with or without parties.
Brian C. Gozun is dean of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business and is on his last leg of office Christmas parties. He narrowly escaped performing at his college party, and hopes not to be blindsided at other parties. He will gladly accept invites, but will not perform for food. He wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.