How to make company events more inclusive

Socializing with colleagues is often necessary for getting to know co-workers and building trust with them.
By Cheryl Meyer

We‘ve all been there: fun nights at the pub with our partners and colleagues, playing softball on the company team, or attending a formal company dinner at a swanky restaurant. Socializing with colleagues is not only enjoyable, but often necessary for getting to know co-workers and leaders and building trust.

“When employees feel included, they are more productive, engaged, and loyal to their organizations,” said Kim Drumgo, director–Diversity & Inclusion at the AICPA.

But sometimes employees can’t or won’t participate in company gatherings due to family obligations, prior commitments, or even shyness, and this can create a disadvantage for them at work. They may feel excluded, have their productivity curtailed, get less face time with the boss, and in some cases, impede their career advancement.

“Given a choice between two equally qualified accountants, most managers are more apt to promote the person with at least some level of the ‘schmooze factor,’ ” said Lynn Taylor, workplace expert and CEO of Lynn Taylor Consulting in Newport Beach, Calif. Depending on your organization’s culture, she said, “if you have a pattern of avoiding social events, it can be perceived as a lack of commitment or loyalty by managers or fellow co-workers.”

This puts organizations in a quandary: Leaders can’t force employees to participate in social events, but when attendance is optional, employees may not show up because of scheduling conflicts or because the events don’t appeal to them, which can impact company dynamics.

What’s more, Taylor said, in their zeal to foster greater camaraderie, organizations can inadvertently appear insensitive to factors such as race, age, gender, income level, religion, or physical limitations when staging social functions.

So how can a firm design and hold “inclusive” events that ensure most if not all employees will want to mingle? Taylor, Drumgo, and Anthony Newkirk, senior manager—Diversity & Inclusion at the AICPA, offered the following tips:

Get feedback. Knowing your employees’ preferences is critical to scheduling any type of event. Survey the staff as to what types of events and programs appeal to them. “Collective input creates an opportunity for the team to explore nontraditional social events beyond their comfort zones,” Drumgo said.

Give advance notice for after-hours events. Office staff members have different personal and work responsibilities, so spontaneous events held after hours don’t work for everyone. “Employees may have before- or after-hours obligations that prevent them from taking their peers up on a last-minute drive-by to the local pub,” Drumgo said.

Schedule events at various times. Social gatherings don’t always have to happen after work at the corner bar. It is up to a company’s leaders to create a balanced approach to socializing to minimize the chance that some workers will feel excluded. Consider breakfast or lunchtime gatherings, or even walks in the park to break up the day, in addition to occasional evening functions. “The ideal time for a social event is when it appeals to the majority of the team and promises the least potential conflict,” Taylor said.

Don’t focus every event around alcohol. While those who imbibe may love a glass of wine, draft beer, or a Cosmopolitan with colleagues, just the presence of liquor may exclude employees who don’t drink alcohol due to religious or personal reasons. Be mindful that not all events have to revolve around the often-enticing cocktail.

Mix up locations. Social events can be held at numerous sites, including the office, a hotel or restaurant, a rock climbing club, a cooking class, or a sporting event. No matter what the locale, make sure your choice supports the interest of the majority of your staff.

State the intentions. Social gatherings run the gamut, so be clear about the purpose of an event, Drumgo said—whether that’s welcoming a new employee, focusing on team building, throwing a holiday dinner, or simply wanting the staff to unwind. That way, employees can decide whether or not to attend and if it’s worth it for them to find a babysitter or skip their yoga class. Managers should also let employees know when they find it important for employees to be present at an event, she added.

Choose good leaders and form an event committee. Identify “inclusion champions” to plan, organize, and engage the workforce for social events, Newkirk advised. “These are people who are consistently high performers, respected by their peers and management, and have a pattern of displaying a tone of respect, tolerance, acceptance, and understanding” of cultural differences, he said. Then, form an event committee. The group, if possible, should comprise people of different races or ethnicities, genders, ages, disciplines, levels in the organization, and perspectives, among other things.

Be creative with event activities. Firms can organize many types of activities that encourage dialogue. Drumgo suggested mounting a large map on the wall and asking staff members to put a pin on the place where they grew up, and then another pin on where their ancestors lived. One of Newkirk’s favorite inclusion events is a companywide multicultural luncheon, where each team brings covered dishes that represent an element of their cultural heritage. “I learned that yams are popular in many countries on the continent of Africa” during such an event, he said.

Appeal to the many, not just the few. Many event organizers initiate social events because the outings appeal to them personally or to their office pals. But if only two employees out of 10 love golf, and you’re one of them, you may want to scratch the day on the links. “The best practice is being inclusive with an event that has the most appeal among the most people, and is the least objectionable,” Taylor said. “Otherwise, ‘team building’ can quickly become ‘team unraveling.’”

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article, email Chris Baysden, senior manager–Magazines & Newsletters at the AICPA. 

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