Skip to main content
business practices

Booze and workplace events can spawn some obvious problems. Canada is seeing a movement away from the traditional office holiday party toward alternatives.nyul/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Forget the evening wear and a formal sit-down dinner. The holiday party at Diamond Schmitt Architects in Toronto is a much more laid-back affair with appetizers, free-flowing refreshments and plenty of mingling in between sets of its in-house band.

At the Winnipeg headquarters of APTN, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, the holiday season celebration emphasizes giving back – from charity drives to management serving staff lunch on a workday.

And the Saskatchewan Research Council does not have an official holiday office party any more.

Related: The dos and don'ts of dressing for your office holiday party

Read more: Tips for a lawsuit-free holiday party

This may be a small sample of the shifting landscape in how employers are marking the coming holiday season. Yet their differing approaches illustrate how the office Christmas party, once a fundamental part of corporate culture and an expected employee benefit, has evolved. The attitudes of both employers and employees toward celebrating the season have changed, says human resources consultant Cissy Pau.

"We certainly are seeing a movement toward alternatives to the traditional party," says the principal with Clear HR Consulting in Vancouver.

Many forces are at play – everything from concerns about cultural sensitivity to liability over alcohol consumption to budget restraints – yet Ms. Pau says the biggest driver has often been the workers themselves.

They're just not as keen about a big corporate shindig as in Christmases past.

"We certainly hear 'I am so busy. I have to do my Christmas shopping. My in-laws are coming into town; I have the house to get ready, and then I have to go to this party on Dec. 20? I just don't have the time,'" Ms. Pau says. "Rather than being an enjoyable experience, it becomes an obligation or a chore."

Decreasing interest in a holiday party played a pivotal role in the Saskatchewan Research Council's decision to put its corporate affair on ice five years ago, says Wanda Nyirfa, vice-president of business ventures at the Saskatoon organization.

"We talked informally to employees to get feedback and in general, there were a lot of other things going on at that time of year so there was not much interest in a formal party," she says. "Instead we turned our attention to simpler, more business-focused but still fun events that take place throughout the year."

But it's not all 'bah, humbug!' Each department holds its own small celebration, Ms. Nyirfa says. "For example, in my division, there's usually a potluck."

The Saskatchewan employer is in good company. APTN also nixed its big corporate party several years ago because of declining attendance.

"The issue for many staff members was that it conflicted with the kids and everything else," says Jean La Rose, APTN's CEO. "That's why we moved to a weekday event during office hours so our staff doesn't feel stressed about having to be there."

Not to mention the current format – a luncheon prepared and served by management – has created another new annual tradition for staff. "They start ribbing us about our cooking weeks in advance."

The luncheon is part of a larger giving-back focus at APTN during the holidays.

"We usually select two indigenous families in need in the Winnipeg area, often a single parent with a few children, to which we provide a food hamper and gifts," Mr. La Rose cites as one example.

It's a similar theme at Ceridian, global human capital management technology company. Among its initiatives to celebrate the season has been a secret Santa where employees exchange toys they think their colleagues would have enjoyed as children.

"For example, I had the CEO in the past and I bought him a Superman costume because he was really into super heroes as a kid," says Kristina Cleary, chief marketing officer with Ceridian in Canada. "And the toys are then donated to [the Salvation Army's] Toy Mountain."

Like other employers, Ceridian is also moving away from a large holiday party. Its Toronto-area operations, for example, recently cancelled its traditional, large holiday party.

"People weren't able to celebrate the season with their teams because the event was so big," says Ms. Cleary. "So this year, we're changing it to small departmental parties so you can actually celebrate with your team."

She adds that company events are meant to boost employee engagement, and a holiday party of more than 1,000 people didn't foster a sense of togetherness. "Sometimes it is so big you lose that feeling of intimacy."

Yet other concerns besides employee engagement are dictating the direction of the holiday celebrations, Ms. Pau says.

"It [alcohol] is a liability issue for many companies – not to mention cost ly," she says, adding that booze and workplace events can spawn some obvious problems.

"More than once I've received a phone call after the Christmas party where the client says, 'We had an employee drink too much and get belligerent with the CEO – what should we do?'"

An open bar at Diamond Schmitt Architects' party – at the recently renovated Drake Hotel – is a longstanding and welcome tradition. But overconsumption has never been a problem, human resources manager Meagan Mallysh says, adding that employees receive cab slips to ensure they get home safely.

"We're also professionals who know how to conduct ourselves at an office Christmas party," she adds. "That being said; people are there to enjoy themselves."

And attendance is always high. "We've had years where people have come back from a business trip and literally just got off the plane and come to the party," she says.

While the celebration involves some cost, like most employers, the money is well spent if staff enjoy themselves, says Jenna Chapman, an employee who helps to plan the annual party.

"As big as we are, we're a close and intimate office. It's part of our corporate culture, and the holiday party is a big part of that," she says about the company of almost 200 people.

"It's just a good reason to go hang out together."

Interact with The Globe