Holiday Party Blues

Some office holiday parties are becoming casualties of the economic slowdown.

Nov. 30, 2008 — -- The holiday office party is the one time of year when co-workers can cut loose. But this season, the financial crisis is scrooging a lot of employees out of the usual festive fun.

Company-sponsored holiday parties have hit a 20-year low, according to the Battalia Winston Amrop annual survey, with 81 percent of firms hosting parties.

The cancellations are widespread -- from Wall Street to the city government of Bend, Ore. Even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sent out a "disinvite" to guests, citing "trying financial times" for the cancellation. American Express called off this year's bash and next year's, too.

The Baltimore-based Kane Company is feeling the pinch as well. Kane, which runs an office moving business, has lately been handling far more closings than grand openings. Now, the company's own bottom line has taken a big hit.

"It's dropping. It's slowing down," said Jim Durfee, the vice president of marketing, who has worked at Kane for more than three decades. The company has had to cut costs, including its holiday party, a celebration that is legendary among those who get invited.

"There was a sense of anticipation. People wanted to get together because it was one of the few times the entire company got together," said Durfee.

The party budget usually ran upwards of $30,000. CEO John Kane said that right now throwing a bash that big just feels wrong.

"In the one sense, we're saying, 'Alright folks, cut back,'" Kane said, "and then at the same sense [how can we] throw a big lavish party? That doesn't work."

GMA workplace contributor Tory Johnson said that, at the moment, that kind of thinking makes sense.

"Nobody wants to have a party on the heels of layoffs," she said. "Nor do they want to have a big celebration and return in January to layoffs and say, 'We should have cancelled that holiday party.'"

At Kane, there is a silver lining. In the true spirit of the season, the company is donating half of its party budget to a local food bank.

Kane's donation has inspired others. Many of the people who received "disinvites" that explained the cancellation decision have responded with donations of their own. So far, he's received over $6,000 in checks for the food bank.

"It's a fun party," Kane said. "But I would tell you I can buy a cold beer someplace with four or five friends and feel a lot better than I can knowing that I would have been able to do something different with that money."

Moves like that can win over employees and make the letdown a little easier.

And there are still ways to celebrate for less. Some companies are having pot-luck get-togethers or employees are spending the day volunteering together.

Johnson said bosses need to explain why the party is off -- and, in most cases, the staff will understand.

"It's also important to, in some ways, replace the sentiment of that holiday party," said Johnson. "So if one of the main reasons of the party was to thank your people and really boost morale and show people that, as an organization, that you care about them, you care about their efforts, you're appreciative of their work, then find a way to show that."