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A stubborn workplace holiday tradition

A stubborn workplace holiday tradition


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So much can go wrong at an office holiday party. And yet … see you in the break room at 5:30.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:


A Baked-In Norm

Many Americans have reconsidered the role of work in their lives in recent years. Is your office your family? No. Are your co-workers your friends? Not necessarily. Are you all still expected at the holiday party in the break room at 5:30? Yes.

For some, sipping complimentary eggnog and listening to Mariah Carey with co-workers is a delight. For others, the office holiday party is a form of personal purgatory. These gatherings can be polarizing, but even through the profound cultural shifts of the past few years, the tradition of the white-collar holiday party endures. The office holiday party is a vestige of a time when work played a very different role in people’s lives (and a time when it was typical to call the event a Christmas party). The concept has roots over a century old, Peter Cappelli, a professor and the director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, told me. Bosses started hosting parties to do something nice for employees at the end of the year—and perhaps to try to quell union organizing in the process. (Work parties fit into the broader concept of welfare capitalism popular in the 1920s, which prioritized giving employees perks in an effort to dissuade them from joining unions, he explained.) The events celebrated good work and were sometimes provided in lieu of bonuses. Once the norm was established, it was hard for bosses to take back, Cappelli said.

If there was ever a time for holiday parties to peter out, it was 2020. Employees opened gift boxes alone at home or did wine tastings with colleagues on Zoom. But when offices that had gone remote reopened, and bosses tried to will things to return to the status quo, the holiday party returned. Its renaissance affirmed its power: The holiday party sent the message that, at least on the outside, things were back to normal. But although the event has endured, its form has changed: Over the past 20 years, Cappelli explained, cultural shifts and financial concerns seem to have led companies to try to rein in the bacchanalia of the olden days. Many companies once had a higher tolerance for workplace wildness, but in recent decades, this approach has given way to concern about accidents or employee lawsuits, Cappelli said. Employers, not wanting to be held liable for overserving their workers, started hiring professional bartenders and, in some cases, limiting drinks. Concerns about sexual harassment in boozy after-hours settings, accelerated by #MeToo-era reexaminations of office culture, further curbed the no-holds-barred atmosphere of the holiday parties of yore.

And, of course, throwing a bash is expensive. Especially since the Great Recession, Cappelli has noticed that no one wants to “look to investors like you’re blowing the budget on something splashy.” The Wall Street Journal reported this week that budget pullbacks have caused companies to host lower-key gatherings, such as office potlucks and smaller parties with reduced staff. And a recent survey of about 200 companies found that nearly a third of those having a party are choosing to host on company premises, and that fewer are serving alcohol this year than in 2022. The debauched, cash-torching tech events that were typical of the 2010s are no longer a great look for an industry that has cut hundreds of thousands of jobs in the past couple of years. Moving away from booze-centric celebrations has also become more popular: Bloomberg recently reported that at some companies, more active events such as pickleball lessons and guacamole competitions have unseated the conventional holiday party.

Still, some version of the standard holiday party remains the norm: Among the survey respondents, more than two-thirds of companies said that they are hosting in-person parties this year. For all of their potential pitfalls, holiday parties are baked into the norms of corporate America. They give bosses a chance to thank employees and celebrate their work, and to reinforce the social ties that make people loyal to their job. It’s a hard tradition to shake. “You really do look like Scrooge,” Cappelli said, “if you say, ‘I’m going to be the one that pulls the plug.’”

Related:


Today’s News

  1. Three hostages held by Hamas in Gaza were killed by the Israeli military after they were mistakenly identified as a “threat,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.
  2. A binder containing highly classified intelligence related to Russian interference in the 2016 election reportedly went missing in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, according to CNN. It was last seen in the White House.
  3. A federal jury ordered Rudy Giuliani to pay $148 million to two Georgia election workers he wrongfully accused of trying to steal votes from Trump.

Dispatches

Explore all of our newsletters here.


Evening Read

An image of the ocean
Danish Defence Command / Forsvaret Ritzau Scanpix / Reuters

The Most Consequential Act of Sabotage in Modern Times

By Mark Bowden

At 2:03 a.m. on Monday, September 26, 2022, at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, an explosion tore open one of the four massive underwater conduits that make up the Nord Stream pipeline. The pipe, made of thick, concrete-encased steel, lay at a depth of 260 feet. It was filled with highly compressed methane gas …

The attack on the pipeline—without loss of life, as far as we know—was one of the most dramatic and consequential acts of sabotage in modern times. It was also an unprecedented attack on a major element of global infrastructure—the network of cables, pipes, and satellites that underpin commerce and communication. Because it serves everyone, global infrastructure had enjoyed tacit immunity in regional conflicts—not total but nearly so. Here was a bold act of war in the waters between two peaceful nations (although Sweden and Denmark both support Ukraine). It effectively destroyed a project that had required decades of strenuous labor and political muscle and had cost roughly $20 billion …

Indeed, more than a year later, nobody knows for certain who was responsible, although accumulating evidence has begun to point in a specific direction.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break

An image of Madonna singing on stage in a black robe
Kevin Mazur / Getty

Listen. Revisit Madonna’s greatest hits while she performs them on a tour that feels like a memorial—a spectacular one.

Watch. The curtain has fallen on The Crown (streaming on Netflix). But does the final season have anything important left to say?

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

If you are facing down a holiday party with trepidation, it may comfort you to remember that you are at least not trapped in a virtual escape room with your co-workers. On a Tuesday afternoon early last year, I sat quietly on Zoom and watched such an event unfold for a group of tech recruiters. Sitting in their respective homes, they solved math puzzles and pieced together clues in breakout rooms. Some of the colleagues appeared to genuinely love the proceedings. Personally, I was quite relieved that I was not expected to contribute.

— Lora


Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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