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Viewpoint ‘Tis The Season To Be Sensible

The CBC, American Express and Pacific Newspaper Group are doing it. It's no surprise that Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Barclays Capital are doing it too. But so are Viacom, ABC News, Hearst, Ente...

The CBC, American Express and Pacific Newspaper Group are doing it. It’s no surprise that Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Barclays Capital are doing it too. But so are Viacom, ABC News, Hearst, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Adidas.

What are all these famous companies, and many others not quite so famous, doing? They’re cancelling their annual company Christmas parties. The Grinch may not have stolen Christmas this year, but he definitely is taking away the Christmas party. (Left unsaid is that other popular company events will also likely get the axe over the course of the coming year.) Cancelled parties or severely scaled-back seasonal events are becoming the norm as companies take stock of the year ahead and decide to cut out any “unnecessary” events as a cost-saving measure.

It’s the responsible thing to do, is it not? Should you not do the same? When you consider all the social events that go on at transportation companies -Christmas parties, staff barbecues, driver recognition nights, sales recognition outings, etc -they do add up to a fair chunk of change over the course of the year.

If you have already cancelled your Christmas party or are planning to do so, you’re certainly in good company. In its survey of 100 companies, outplacement consultant Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. found that 23% of companies elected not to host a holiday party this year, compared with only 10% in 2007.

The true savings though are dubious. Companies holding the event outside their building don’t necessarily save any money when they cancel an event on such short notice. When you cancel within 60 days of the event, you’re pretty much on the hook for the venue’s rental.

But that’s not what’s most important here. What is important is the often unappreciated impact of Christmas parties and other corporate social events not only on how employees feel about their company but on how they feel in general.

Let me relate a story I learned from reading Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Outliers. Gladwell writes about the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania. The town was founded more than a century ago by wave after wave of immigrants from the Appenine foothills territory of Italy but no one took much notice until the1950s. That’s when a physician and lecturer from the University of Oklahoma named Stewart Wolf accidently discovered that finding anyone from Roseto under age 65 dying of heart disease was strikingly rare. This was the 1950s remember, years before drugs to lower cholesterol hit the market and any real public awareness about the causes of heart disease.

Wolf decided to investigate. What made the people from Roseto so different? Was it diet? When their eating habits were analyzed, it was revealed the average Rosetan was actually getting 41% of his calories from fat. Nor were Rosetans avid joggers or into yoga and many smoked and were struggling with obesity.

Were Rosetans the beneficiaries of some really healthy genes then? Wolf tracked down relatives of Rosetans who were living in other parts of the US to see if they shared the same remarkable good health. They didn’t.

Perhaps there was something particularly beneficial about living in the foothills of eastern Pennsylvania. That didn’t check out either. The two closest towns, just a few miles away, and also populated with hardworking European immigrants, had death rates from heart disease that were three times that of Roseto.

After pursuing dead end after dead end, Wolf finally realized that the secret of Roseto was Roseto itself. He walked about town and noticed how the Rosetans “visited one another, stopping to chat in Italian on the street, say, or cooking for one another in their backyards… He went to mass and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. He counted 22 separate civic organizations in a town of just under 2,000 people.”

What the Rosetans had managed to do was create a cohesive, powerful and protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world. They had, in other words, stumbled on the importance of creating the feeling of “community” as a way to battle through life’s struggles. The effectiveness of this community feeling was evident in Rosetans’ health.

When we really think about it, is that not what Christmas parties and other corporate events really are about? Fostering the kind of bonds with employees that not only serve as indication the company appreciates their contributions but also create the cohesive glue that helps them deal with adversity?

What signal are we sending when we bail out at the first sign of financial trouble?



“Knowledge needs to be pulled into the brain by the student, not pushed into it by the teacher.”

Sister Agnes Patricia

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