Around this time of year, Nicole Mark typically finds herself frantically sifting through her wardrobe, debating whether she can get away with wearing last year’s office holiday party outfit.
“I would be staring at my closet, thinking, ‘What is my style but still appropriate for work, but not too businesslike, and sort of festive,’” says Mark, a data analyst in Tampa. “It is a very difficult line to walk for women.”
Although Mark, 44, recently joined a start-up with a relatively small staff, she spent several years working at large corporations, which she says were notorious for throwing elaborate holiday parties.
But rather than look forward to the events, Mark would “dread them,” she says. “I would resent them before they even happened because it felt like such an obligation.”
This year, though, looks different. As coronavirus cases climb, most corporate festivities are being canceled due to restrictions. Only 23 percent of U.S. businesses are planning to host end-of-year celebrations, according to a poll by the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, and 74 percent of those will be virtual.
This might actually be good news for some: A poll from the employment service provider Monster found that more than 30 percent of surveyed workers are looking forward to no commute to and from the party.
Mark, for one, says she’s relieved. As she puts it: “One can only wish office parties would be dead forever.”
On a more serious note, Mark says office holiday parties can cultivate inappropriate interactions between colleagues — often fueled by free-flowing alcohol. In recent years, employers have sought to reconsider their holiday party formats amid increased attention to issues of sexual harassment.
Mark isn’t alone in her relief. For a number of reasons — from worries about uncomfortable interactions with colleagues to simply not feeling in the mood to socialize — some women say they’re thankful that office holiday parties are largely being called off this year.
For Sarah Be, 45, a marketing director in Kansas City, Mo., in-person holiday parties were a money sink. For starters, Be remembers having to rent a designer dress to wear to her former company’s winter gala — a black-tie affair — a few years ago.
“I’m not in the income bracket to just go out and buy one,” she says. She ended up renting a sequin-covered gown to wear to the formal event.
Beyond the dress, “child care was always a concern,” says Be, who is a mother of two children, ages 14 and 9. They’re older now, but Be had to hire a babysitter for past holiday parties, which contributed to the overall cost of the evening.
Like Mark, Be recalls witnessing or hearing about inappropriate social interactions between colleagues at these events.
“Looking back at all the places I’ve worked in the last 15 years, each office had a different political and social dynamic,” Be says. “At holiday parties, all of these things tend to bubble up to the surface. Especially with men, things are said that I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t say to me if I were at my desk.”
As Be puts it, at office holiday parties, “the feeling is, ‘Whatever happens here, stays here.’”
For 25-year-old Ronja Haugholt, that attitude was on display at an office party last year. Haugholt, formerly a receptionist at an investment bank in London, says she doesn’t drink. When a male banker repeatedly offered to buy her one last year, she said no. Instead, she says, she asked for sparkling water.
Shortly after his pleading failed, the colleague returned from the bar, carrying a glass of clear liquid. “I was already suspicious. I took a small sip and realized it was a gin and tonic,” Haugholt says. “It made me really angry.”
In conversations with female colleagues afterward, Haugholt says, she learned she was not alone: He had tried to serve other women alcohol, too, when they specifically asked for water.
“It’s not okay to peer-pressure someone to drink alcohol,” Haugholt says, adding that she is relieved to be skipping out on holiday parties for this reason. “What if one of us was pregnant, or a recovering alcoholic?”
“As women, especially in my position as a receptionist, people think they have some sort of power over you,” she says.
Angela Noble-Grange, a management communication professor at Cornell University, echoes that “power” can play a large role in holiday party dynamics. “Women are still in the minority in a lot of situations at work, and men are often in the power position,” she says. “The absence of these in-person holiday parties — and the alcohol that can get many into trouble — spares the awkward power dynamic and possible negative consequences.”
Indeed, while there can be benefits to “informal social events” in the realms of career growth and gaining social capital, “they also come with costs,” according to Mark Gough, an assistant professor in labor and employment relations at Penn State University.
Inappropriate behavior can be “amplified by the power dynamics at work and the power dynamics in broader society,” he says. What’s more, sometimes these actions in party settings aren’t “necessarily always outrageous, but that doesn’t make it benign.” This gray area, Gough says, can be “really problematic and insidious.”
Whether muted or extreme, behavior at holiday parties often departs from in-office etiquette, many women say. According to Jackie Bryant, a 35-year-old freelance writer who previously worked in finance in New York City, “The things I saw were insane.”
“At holiday parties I attended in finance, the mask comes off that day,” she says. “Everyone knows they have a pass to act a certain way, and so they do. There’s a side to people that you didn’t see for the other 364 days of the year.”
Still, Bryant has mixed feelings about forgoing holiday parties this year. She says she misses “an excuse to get dressed up and be social, but that just ties into the year in general.” On the other hand, Bryant says, “I definitely am not missing the forced interaction, the small talk, the sizing up, the measuring up. I don’t miss the obligation at all.”
Deborah Wagner, 42, who worked for the military for more than seven years, is also relieved, but for a different reason. As someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas, she often feels excluded from work holiday events.
“In the last location I was [stationed], there was very minimal attention paid to anyone who was Jewish,” says Wagner, who now works for a nonprofit organization. “I don’t believe people are intentionally excluding me, but there is this lack of awareness and lack of desire to really be inclusive to everybody at holiday parties.”
Some women are simply excited for an excuse not to party.
Pauline Leung, 55, who owns a production business in New York City, says she typically attends between seven and 10 client holiday parties per season.
Although Leung misses being in the presence of others, “for the first time in 25 years, I don’t have to worry about the pressure,” she says.
On top of the other stresses of a holiday season in the middle of a pandemic, Leung welcomes the reprieve. As she puts it: “All things considered this year, this is definitely a welcome break.”