Office parties changing, but they're not dead yet


CHICAGO -- Evolution, the force that eventually fashioned ape into man, now appears to be leaving its mark on another creature -- the office Christmas party.

Signs of adaptation are cropping up in the species stereotype -- an inebriated, raucous and extravagant thing that left legions humiliated, hung over and career-wounded.

Charles Darwin would not be surprised at its evolution, only its resilience.

The office Christmas party, after all, faces a rather hostile environment: Lawsuits over alcohol consumption and sexual harassment abound. Corporate cost-cutting is rampant. The whiff of political correctness is in the air.

This has given rise to mutant descendants of the old office-party institution. We now encounter festivities with alcohol-free beer, meat-free menus and dogma-free decorations. (A dreidel beside the manger. A "Babes in Toyland" theme featuring Babes of all races, some in wheelchairs.)

For nine years now, New York executive search firm Battalia Winston International has monitored the state of the office Christmas party in a survey of 100 large companies throughout the nation.

Its results show that the office Christmas party has survived, but as a more humble event.

Companies spend less, offer more low-key events and give employees less lavish gifts than in earlier years, the survey found.

"They're not saying 'Bah, humbug,'" said Jo Bennett, vice president at Battalia Winston International. "They're saying let's have a very respectful celebration."

Ms. Bennett believes the main reason is an economic uncertainty that has in turn given rise to a change in mood.

"The same person might have looked at a fancy party in 1986 and said, 'Wow! That's a company on the move!' Now someone might look at a fancy party and say, 'I wonder who's minding the store?'" Ms. Bennett said.

At the same time, many office Christmas parties demonstrate a strong survival instinct in the face of economic and social turbulence.

Since 1978, the National Institute of Business Management has conducted its annual "Survey of Year-End Holiday Practices," only to find that almost nothing has changed in the realm of the office party.

Mark Naydan, senior surveys researcher, offers one explanation. Employees expect it," he said. "They'll be disappointed if they -- don't have it."

The sole notable change is that more companies are holding toy collections, food drives and other charitable activities.

The survey does not try to measure some of the more subtle

changes afoot. A change in menu or decor. Going from offering hard liquor to wine and beer only.

These are among the changes observed by people who make a living throwing parties.

David Soren, president of the International Special Events Society, has seen a dramatic downturn. After the Persian Gulf War, he said, "things just really took a nose dive."

Hotel executives and companies that plan private parties notice a difference. Parties are smaller, less ostentatious, less denominational. Companies that once held dinners and parties that lasted late into the evening now choose a cocktail party with hors d'oeuvres.

There also seems to be a high degree of sensitivity on the subject of the party. Surveyors had to promise anonymity to find out these tidbits: A national pharmaceutical company abandoned dinner at a high-profile restaurant in favor of lunch at the office. An insurance company got rid of the fancy dinner out in favor of having Santa in to visit employees' children. And a mining company that gave employees a riverboat outing last year held an "appetizers-only" party after work at the company this year.

"I think companies are cautious in how they appear to the public," said Robert Sivek, founder of the Meetinghouse, an Elmhurst, Ill., company that does Christmas decorations and theme parties. "So they're not outrageous publicly."

Privately? He chuckled. "They can be."

The subject is especially touchy for industries that have experienced layoffs and are struggling to strike a balance between not further hurting employee morale and not wishing to celebrate in the wake of layoffs.

"The times don't feel right for a lavish party," said Dorothy Denzler, director of public relations for the advertising agency DDB Needham Chicago, referring to the ad industry's economic woes.

Many businesses are very worried about alcohol-related problems, said Howard Parker, human resource manager for the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. He has been swamped with calls on the subject over the last two years. He advises the businesses to be very, very careful. "You almost turn into mother," he said.

Many companies say they have not changed their traditions and they consider it a point of pride.

One division of a major Chicago bank continues to hold a dinner party where the alcohol is ample, and so are the tasteless grab-bag gifts, an employee said. There is also palpable envy from employees of other divisions where such gatherings have been whittled into tame, brief gatherings over hors d'oeuvres.

No one with an opinion on the subject of the office Christmas party foresees its death.

"It's necessary psychologically," said Letitia Baldrige, who, as author of a guide to executive manners, should know about such things.

"We hear daily about the world's pain and suffering. We worry about whether our jobs are secure. On top of all that, here comes the long, dreary winter," she said.

"I'm depressed just thinking about it."

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