For startup businesses with a lot on their holiday plates, throwing an office party can be the thing that causes everything to slide into their laps. While bigger, established firms may have an HR department or even a party-planning committee (think: Angela on “The Office”), entrepreneurs may find “party planner” added to their job descriptions.
Small businesses without conference rooms or ample office space, particularly those with a host of subcontractors, may find themselves sending invites for an off-site holiday party. And there are lots of reasons such events cause good cheer: they show staff that they are appreciated, they are a chance for virtual employees to meet one another, and demonstrate a business owner’s intent to ring out the old and ring in the new in the right way. The right party and the right venue can be a teambuilding boost during end-of-year stress. But hosting an off-site office party also has risk, and a plastic plate full of fruitcake isn’t the worse of it. Here are four mistakes not to make when taking your staff out of the office:
1. Forgetting to plan for the ride home. If you are going to serve alcohol (and most experts say it is expected in a festive environment), you must make sure your employees don’t drink and drive. Ian Aronovich, president and co-founder of GovernmentAuctions.org in Great Neck, N.Y., covers the cost of cab rides at the end of the night for his staff. One option to make sure folks don’t sip too much is to issue drink tickets, says Nina B. Ries, principal of Ries Law Group in Santa Monica Calif., “A good cap on the number of tickets might be one drink ticket per hour of the party.” Ries cautions that, “in the event of an accident, there is often plenty of blame to go around. There can be liability on the venue, the catering company, the host, the guest, and possibly others depending on the specific facts of the case.”
2. Not setting the tone. People tend to let down their hair a little more at an off-site party than one that is held at the office, says Joseph Grenny, author of Crucial Conversations (McGraw Hill), because they don’t have their cubicles around to remind them that they are at work. But Grenny doesn’t think business owners should be didactic. If you send out a memo telling employees how to dress or behave, you risk looking parental. Instead, lead by example. Be friendly, open and appropriately casual, and your staff will follow. Greet staff and spouses when they walk in the door. Talk to them about their hobbies, travel plans and other party-appropriate topics, not about the deadline for their projects. Drink moderately yourself. Don’t perform any dance moves you don’t want posted on Facebook. You want people to loosen their shirt collars, but not take off their shirts.
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3. Forgetting you’re still the host. Off-site parties tend to be thrown at night or on the weekends. If you are asking employees to celebrate on their off hours, staffers may need to find childcare or make other arrangements. Loop in with staffers early about the dates you’re choosing so they can plan ahead and choose a central location so everyone can participate. Work closely with your venue to ensure that your group has room to chat and eat with other. Be detailed and tell staffers if the venue will have a cash bar or valet parking so there are no surprises.
4. Ignoring spouses. In general, the expectation for off-site, evening parties is that spouses are invited. People don’t want to leave their family during their off-hours, so make sure your budget allows you to include them. “Since the goal of the party is to build trust and connection in the team, bringing partners and spouses is a great idea,” Grenny adds. But it is not enough just to have them in attendance. Make them feel included. Help direct conversation so it isn’t filled with inside office jokes that will go over the heads of non-staff members. Tell partners why their spouse or significant other is an important part of your team. Thank them for taking time out of their holidays to celebrate with you.
Margaret Littman is a journalist who covers small businesses, travel and all manner of other topics, with a sweet spot for anything relating to stand-up paddling or Music City. She is the author of the Nashville Essential Guide iPhone and Android app and many travel guidebooks. Her work has appeared in many national magazines, and she is the editor of Entrepreneur magazine’s Start It Up section.