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No office holiday party this year? Your employees may be better off

If you're bummed that a holiday party wasn't in the budget this year as your employees head off on vacation next week, don't fret. New research shows that they may not have the benefits you think.

Research published in a recent issue of the journal Organization Science by professors at Columbia University, Ohio State University and Wharton found that "integration behaviors" — perhaps the most cringe-worthy word I've seen yet for obligatory work social events such as holiday parties, corporate picnics or office happy hours — can help make people feel closer. Unless, that is, you're a minority.

Those from similar racial backgrounds showed a statistically significant boost in connection levels because of such events, the study found, but such gatherings proved to do little to help people of different races feel closer. "The superficial nature of some of these things doesn't really change the quality of relationships across racial divides," Columbia Business School professor Katherine Phillips said in an interview.

Phillips and her colleagues conducted two studies: one a survey of MBA students, the other a survey of random U.S. workers. In the surveys, they asked questions such as how close respondents felt with their colleagues, what they thought of company-sponsored social events, and how comfortable they were when attending them. In both studies, their hypothesis — that racial differences would lessen the camaraderie benefits such events were expected to produce — proved to be true. "People told us they participated in these things out of obligation," Phillips said.

While their data doesn't show a negative impact from office get-togethers (just no statistically significant benefit for minority workers), Phillips says big company events may reinforce or even worsen feelings of discomfort among employees who are part of a minority group. "If your group at work has 20 people, and you already feel different from everybody," said Phillips, "imagine taking that to company party, and now you're one of a few in a much larger context."

Lest she be thought of as Scrooge, Phillips is careful to note that the takeaway from her research isn't that companies shouldn't have holiday parties. It's that managers need to do a lot more than stick employees in a room together and expect they'll all form tight-knit bonds that will make them work together more effectively.

Putting more emphasis on achieving shared goals together in the office, the paper notes, can help build relationships in ways that don't involve alcohol, buffets of bland food or really bad dancing. And in the process, managers can remove one more obligation for all of us from this season of obligations.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

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Traditional office holiday parties getting ditched

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