Setting Boundaries at the Company Appreciation Event

A guiding managerial philosophy of mine throughout my career has been that you are free to come into my office and say whatever you want behind closed doors. If you don’t agree with a particular direction, or have some concerns about a decision, you should voice your stance. However, once we’ve talked and made a decision together, don’t leave my office and talk with the team about your concerns in the same unflattering manner. If you do, make it a good one and go out in a blaze of glory. One direct report took this to heart, and due to his professionalism still ranks as one of the greatest people to bounce ideas off of in my lifetime. However, that didn’t come without a learning experience. In my first year of overseeing a large graduation ceremony, I told my team I wished to do away with the need for families to show their identification day of to pick up their access pass. I also felt the gates should be open all the time, and families should feel free to reserve seats. This trusted soul came to my office and flat out told me I was an idiot. Being young, and clearly knowing everything, I elected to disagree. He encouraged me, at the very least, to send out a “code of conduct” to parents in an effort to reduce risk under these new procedures. Arrogantly, I determined humans are intelligent beings and would never do anything on such an important day to tarnish it, or themselves. I concluded the session with the understanding we would move forward with my plan. Keeping to my philosophy, he said nothing to no one.

On day of, I can only imagine it resembled an open seating concert if the musicians were on fire, and the stage was on fire and the entire floor of the venue was on fire. The first 16 rows, which had 50 chairs each, were strewn with coats, blankets, paper signs and orange safety cones that one ingenious soul used to reserve 75 seats! Who has 75 safety cones in their garage?? Since we no longer required parents to register their guests ahead of time, stating the allowed relationships that qualified a guest, families brought neighbors or family friends to, as one parent said, “help hold off the boredom and give her someone to play cards with until her son’s name was called to receive a diploma.” These friends, unable to retain a babysitter for their elementary school children, invited them to play touch football outside the tent, drawing a larger crowd than the ceremony. In short, it was career defining moment in so much as I’m amazed I still had a career when the dust settled.

I share this story as it was brought to mind when one of our clients commented that they were doing away with their appreciation events because they felt their employees were abusing the intention. Abusing the open attendance policy by inviting neighbors, and in some cases, acting in such a manner that causes the employees stock to drop in the eye of the client. No question these are real concerns, but our question back to the client was what expectations did you communicate to your employees? What connection did you make between your typical company code of conduct, and this important culture shaping event?

The goal of your appreciation event is to create a culture that builds a sense of family and community. Allow your employees to relax, focus on something other than work, and reap the benefits of a more connected and happy workforce. Nothing will kill that feeling faster than a published set of rules in the same tone, and delivered in the same manner, as every other communication about their job. Employees will see this as a mandatory event, or worse, a fear of their every move being watched by the boss. You want to control your event, but you want to make sure your event is actually attended by your target audience.

Worried about your employees inviting the cousin thrice removed? Publish a general reminder about the upcoming appreciation event. Start by highlighting the activities, entertainment and food that will be at the event. Make sure to indicate attendance is voluntary, but you are truly looking forward to meeting everyone’s family outside the work day. Enjoying the company of co-workers and celebrating what they mean to the success of the organization. Once established, we suggest a playful jab at limiting attendance. Perhaps a statement along the lines of, “We hope to see everyone, and are looking forward to meeting their immediate family. We understand that you may consider your neighbors family, but in order for us to meet and mingle with everyone in the time allotted, please keep attendance limited to family members you are constantly jockeying with in the queue line for the bathroom at home.” You could add a statement saying that everyone is welcome to see you should they have a question about who among their family is invited. By hitting the word “family”, you are making it clear that your event is for your team and their family members. This will convey your desire for immediate family, while also keeping the tone light so as not to conjure any images of an authoritative boss trying to cut fun off at the knees.

Want to make sure your employees act in accordance with company values at the party? Especially with holiday parties, where alcohol may be a guest, this can be a concern. Once again, trotting out the company handbook will probably send a chill down the rank and file that will sour the party atmosphere. Unless you have a history of a heavy HR meeting day following company parties, I would suggest a clear but light message to your employees to end your communication reminding them of the appreciation day coming up. A finisher along the lines of, “In the tradition of XYZ Company, family and teamwork are cornerstones of our organization. Let’s all come together and celebrate each other in a safe and responsible manner.” At the end of the reminder notice, we suggest a few bullet points, in smaller print, that outline some other expectations such as “XYZ Company is a smoke free environment”, or “XYZ Company Family Day is an alcohol free event”, or “Please leave your firearms and fireworks at home”. In a subtle way, you can get your point across, and in a manner that creates a small buzz about your event which could lead to increased participation. A good event planner, and I just HAPPEN to know one, can assist you in creating your correspondence.

As with most things in life, communication can prevent many issues if done correctly, and timely. Communicate to your employees your hopes and expectations for the day. Make sure your event planning committee, and your event planner, communicate to you any concerns in the planning process. Most of all, remember the goal of the event is to bring everyone together and create growth thru a sense of team. So don’t make all the decisions yourself, and don’t let the entire day be about what you think is right. Otherwise, you may find yourself surrounded by orange safety cones.

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