Menefee: How I Saved My Company Holiday Parties

Dec. 12, 2023
After several failed attempts, a few adjustments got employees into the holiday spirit

There’s an art to throwing a successful company holiday party, a task I have struggled with for years. At first, I thought I didn’t need to do a holiday party, because what more could they want after receiving a generous holiday bonus? Then I realized a holiday party could bring my employees together and help develop our culture. 

The first year, I spent no time prepping and took my lead from other shops around me. We had just a few employees and had the party the day before Christmas Eve. We closed early at 2:00 p.m. and grilled some meat on the BBQ, got some beers, and gave out the holiday bonus. I also paid them to be off Christmas Eve and Day. I thought I was doing great, because most of the other shops around me worked a half day on Christmas Eve. But I was wrong. There was no camaraderie, and everyone left by 3:00.

The next year, I invited their significant others and kids and bought the kids little gifts. But it flopped just like the first one. No significant others showed up, and only two of my employees brought their kids. I could tell my employees were just ready to leave and get their holiday started. Their families had no incentive to come and spend time at the shop.

After two failed holiday parties at the shop, I decided to have the next one at a restaurant. I invited the families and kids and covered the cost, including drinks for the adults. I also had them draw names for a gift exchange. I really thought, "This it. They are going to have a good time, there’s going to be a lot of camaraderie, and my team is going to grow closer!" But my team stayed just long enough to get their holiday bonus checks, exchange gifts, and leave. A few stayed and ate and drank, but most of them used the excuse of family obligations and left as soon as they could. The ones who did stay just stayed to themselves or their already preformed groups.

By year four, I was sort of at a loss, but I wasn’t done trying. We closed early and had the holiday party a week before Christmas. I had food and drinks catered, tailored to what they requested in advance. I handed out the bonuses. We did a Secret Santa gift exchange and played games. We played the jingle bells game where you strap to your backside an empty tissue box (adapted to body shop life, we used empty glove boxes and masking tape) full of little bells. Then you have to shake, jump, gyrate, and anything else you can do to get the little bells out of the box before your competitor does.

Most of my team did not want to play the ridiculous games I came up with. To fix that, I had to make a fool of myself (which I have no problem doing). 

My team laughed so hard at me getting a box taped to me and then trying to get all the bells out. Then we did the game where you put whipped cream on your hand and then hit your arm with your opposite hand to send the whipped cream flying in the air and then try to catch it in your mouth. I demonstrated the game and ended up with whipped cream smeared all over my face and in my hair. I’ve never seen my team come together so quickly as they did that day to laugh at my foolishness. Everyone stayed at the holiday for a few hours and seemed to enjoy it. I took that party as a win!

Last year was our fifth holiday party, and it was my best one yet. I handed out holiday bonuses two weeks in advance of the party so my team had a chance to use the money to buy gifts and other holiday expenses. Everyone appreciated that. We had the holiday party a week before Christmas Eve. I had the food catered from where my team chose, and I let them pick what drinks we were having. I invited the significant others and kids. I got a gift for each who would be attending. Each gift was under $25, but it showed my employees and their families I was thinking of them. We also did a white elephant exchange with a limit of $25, and the item had to be body shop-related in some manner. What they came up with was hilarious.

The biggest difference was the games. Participants could be silly and win money. The games were easy enough that the kids could also play. For one, we layered a table with a bunch of $1 bills. But mixed in were gift cards and $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 bills. We blindfolded the employees and stuck them in front of the table with a spatula and a plate. They could keep whatever they could scoop up on the plate in 30 seconds. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, and everyone loved the game. My entire team was laughing and yelling directions at the person playing. It was great to see. We continued the party with four or five more similar games, and everyone stayed a good three or four hours, just hanging out and laughing and having a good time, The party was a success.

The point is to remind you that the holidays are a time where you can strengthen your culture and build the camaraderie between your employees. It may even take making a fool of yourself to have that happen. If one party doesn’t work, keep tweaking it until you find what does work for you. My team looks forward to the party, and I look forward to seeing them have a good time and laugh and grow together. The stronger the ties are between my team members, the stronger my shop is. And that is my main goal.