The corporate holiday party is a night when everyone’s supposed to pretend there are no organizational charts, no office hierarchies. Interns can kick back with the bosses—and theoretically do more intimate things with them—and the next morning everyone’s just supposed to snap back into normal behavior, hangovers be damned.
During the boom years, startups and other profligate spenders would blow colossal amounts on these events, which were as much about chief executive ego and coolness as employee morale. That’s still happening to some extent: In 2010, the Blackstone Group (BX) rented out the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the party centered around cutting a mammoth cake with the word “accountability” emblazoned on top. In 2011, Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund famous in part for its parties, rented out a 10,000-seat arena for a holiday bash; while details were kept under wraps, past events have included mud wrestling. Billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, of Tudor Investment, puts on an annual light show (the “Jones-a-Palooza”) synchronized to music at his estate in Greenwich, Conn. Are the parties any less awkward for their extravagance? Not really. Even the greenest 22-year-old attendees sense they’re witnessing something unsustainable—a lot of someone’s venture capital being tossed into a fire pit.
In the cold December after the financial crisis of 2008, many companies decided to go the other way, skipping the party entirely. The employee-retention rationale kind of goes out the window when jobs are scarce and nobody is likely to leave anyway. Above the Law, a popular blog about the legal world, recently opined that big firms would be better off forgoing their joyless parties and parceling out the entertainment budget in the form of $100 gift cards to employees. Ho, ho, ho.
Some years back, I worked for a corporation whose stock price was slowly sinking, and I watched each December as the party budget withered away. First, spouses were knocked off the list; then many unrelated divisions of the company were all invited to one shared event; then, finally, the thing was canceled altogether.
Holiday parties are back, if not quite in full force. Even now that the economy is marginally better, throw a party that’s one iota nicer than your staff might expect, and it’s certain that some Grinch will mutter, “I’d rather have had a raise this year.” Battalia Winston, a firm that does an annual survey of corporate merriment, is reporting the first uptick since the crash: 91 percent of companies plan to give a party this year, the most since 2007 and a big bump from the 74 percent figure (a 25-year low) of 2011. Anthony Patrone, co-owner of a Brooklyn party-planning company called Ultra Events & Staffing, says he’s definitely noticed an improvement: “December’s always busy, but many more businesses are asking about rates this year. People are saying ‘enough is enough.’ ” David Stark, a top event planner who runs David Stark Design & Production in Brooklyn, also points to the microtrend of “corporations giving their money to Sandy relief instead of throwing the blowout bash.” Do-gooderism is a neat inoculation against employee grumpiness: They can’t complain about that.
Many parties this year will hit a middle ground between opulent and, well, nonexistent, but that won’t make them any less strange. Consider those held in the office itself. Getting hammered on the premises feels transgressive, whether it is or not. There’s actual science behind that: One British study led by the school of psychology at the University of Birmingham found that drinking in an unusual setting—the conference room, say, as opposed to your local pub—does in fact get you drunker, because your brain compensates for lowered inhibition better in familiar surroundings.
Then there are the hookups. Stark recalls one big corporate event at which he encountered “sex in a bathroom, with vomiting right before they vacated the room.” There’s also the experience of learning that your co-worker, to whom you have barely spoken two words all year, is getting a divorce/having money problems/hates the boss. A survey by Caron Treatment Centers, a drug- and alcohol-treatment service, reveals that fully one quarter of all partygoers have heard someone overshare. Puke notwithstanding, isn’t this all starting to sound like a bit of a blast?
The best thing that ever happened to a holiday party, in my experience, turned out to be its cancellation. After the old employer mentioned above turned austere, our boss said, “Oh, I’ll host something myself,” and had us all over to her house. One senior staffer mixed up gallons of very strong margaritas; three of us prepped hundreds of hors d’oeuvres. The outsiderness of the thing gave it back to us. It was no longer a line in the budget, and an assistant finished out the evening pantsless and asleep in the bathtub. It was the weirdest, warmest party—work-related or not—I can remember attending.