If you talk to any professional woman about the 80s or 90s halcyon days of the ‘old boys club’, you’re frankly going to hear about social corporate events that would be utterly inconceivable today.
But even as certain practices become obsolete and companies recognize the need to create inclusion in the workplace, such as in company meetings, many overlook how influential corporate events are in reinforcing exclusion or cultivating inclusion. And when the context is work and social, there are distinct considerations.
How Company Events can Alienate and Exclude
There are many ways that company events can, and often do, reinforce exclusion. In contrast, inclusivity-oriented events seek to create a more equitable experience for everyone and to build up a sense of belonging in the organization. Too often, without the intention of inclusion, events convey unspoken messages and create unease around company culture.
Here’s some examples of how exclusion happens with work events.
- Excluding remote workers - If your company supports remote and hybrid work options, you must carry that commitment through every part of the employee relationship, not sideline it when company events come up. An in-presence work event that does not offer remote participation penalizes employees who prefer and choose a remote working solution.
- Devaluing regional offices - “Head office” and employees who work at head office usually host a disproportionate amount of company fanfare. If you are a large organization with headquarters or regional head offices, not actively including regional and local offices in corporate events can create (or reinforce) the perception of a hierarchy of importance between hub and regional offices.
- Social and lifestyle exclusions - Many events overtly or subtly exclude based on beliefs, cultural, social or lifestyle factors and can be insensitive to race, age, gender, income level, religion, or physical limitations. A “Christmas” party excludes people of religious faiths that do not celebrate Christmas. When you encourage that you can bring your partner or spouse to an event, inclusive wording is important and still, individuals who are single can feel excluded. When social events center on alcohol, non-drinkers can feel uncomfortable while being expected to socialize. Evening work events can increase tensions and pressures for parents with small children. Inaccessible work event locations exclude workers who experience disabilities.
- Representation exclusions - If you have a corporate event, no matter the topic, and your hosts and panel of speakers fail to represent diversity or exhibit diversity tokenism, you are sending messages about who is included at the core of the culture and who is not.
- Activity exclusions - Traditional work socials predicated on networking and schmooze can be a real challenge for introverts, who may be judged for lack of commitment if they don’t put on a convincing social mask or avoid contexts in which they do not feel comfortable to, or know how to, show up authentically.
- Attendance exclusion - It can quickly get confusing if you muddy the categorical lines around who is invited to attend. For example, inviting one client or supplier to an employee-only event can create exclusion if another client or supplier finds they were left off the extended list while someone else was included. Creating clean lines can simplify.
- Motivation disconnection - Does your work event feel like a huge superficial expenditure that does not meet the real needs of your employees? If your resources could have been better allocated, you may lose out on building connection and raising morale among your employees who might perceive you as throwing away time and cash that could be more effectively reinvested in them.
A Tale of the Finnish Sauna
Sauna is a longstanding cultural tradition in Scandinavia. Among business, tech, start-up and venture capital (VC) related work events and international conferences, mixed-gender sauna parties became popularized as a way to share a cultural tradition and, purportedly, build informality, trust and openness. But mixing sauna culture with business has become very controversial.
Many feel that sauna parties, where people are stripped down to a towel at best, are far from an inclusive and equitable ice-breaker or appropriate business networking context. Gender diversity is a massive issue in the tech, start-up and VC space, with less than 2% of capital going to female-founded companies in Europe and with women holding 15% of GP positions at Venture Funds in Nordics but only 6% of ‘AuM’ investment power. Gender gaps persist in pay and management and women experts have lower gravitational pull (revealing a credibility gap) than men.
Many doubt sauna networking provides equal footing across genders. Core opposing voices, such as Jenny Ruth Hrafnsdottir, a partner at a VC firm, have argued that gendered and mix-gendered saunas as a context for investment-related discussions reinforces the “bros’ club” approach to networking (set up by men for men), keeps the investment decision-making circle insular and inadvertently excludes many women who would not feel comfortable - including simply for the extra personal care hassle or because they are international and not as accustomed to the tradition.
Raising the issue around mixing sauna culture with business has caused certain event organizers (such as the tech festival Slush) to reconsider or remove the sauna component in past years - at minimum, from the space where business happens.
But saunas have also been defended as an entrenched cultural tradition and a space in which some may feel more comfortable than in a loud social alternative (such as karaoke), so they persist at some events with considerations. Inclusion is subjective - and yet it needs to be able to take those subjective lenses into account.
10 Tips to Make your Work Events More Inclusive
If your organizational culture embraces diversity, you’re going to realize that more inclusive events yield more rewarding experiences and outcomes for your organization. But they require intention to disrupt the status quote of event planning approaches.
- Make your Events Hybrid, too - A hybrid workplace requires hybrid events. As best as possible, create an equitable experience for those who are remote by creating parallel in-person and virtual components - from dedicated organizers to videotaping for remote participants to methods of participation to discussion.
- Include Different Offices - If you are a headquarters or a head office that is holding a corporate event, include your regional offices in creating corresponding events (or extending your event) to increase a sense of equitable belonging between offices. Rotate the core location of events to different offices.
- Make Timing and Location Work for Everyone - As much as possible, hold work events during work hours. Outside of work hours, hold events at different times of day instead of just evenings. Always make sure that you give advance notice so if people are able to accommodate the event with planning and arrangements, they have the time to actually do that. For physical events, make sure your location is accessible - considering disability, transport options, etc.
- Watch Your Wording and Approaches - Plan your events through an inclusivity lens and audit by exposing plans and communications to a diverse group. A ‘Christmas party' or invitation that only states ‘spouses invited’ wouldn’t pass the first filter. Leverage your DEI committees and teams to think about what you’re not thinking about - sometimes as basic as catering flexibility for different dietary requirements.
- Diverse representation - If your company embraces difference, you will bring inclusion to every aspect of your event planning. Does the event planning team itself represent diversity and think in inclusion, offering multiple perspectives? If there are key speakers, what kind of diverse perspectives do you want represented on the subject matter (and not just on diversity as their subject matter)? Start through an inclusion lens rather than adding a diversity token or two to what is honestly a homogenous panel: it will be transparent to everyone.
- Different activities - Every corporate event should not feel the same, because then you are playing to a small set of interaction preferences. A panel of speakers is not the only way to investigate and educate on a topic. A cocktail happy hour is not the only way to socialize. Consider multiple ways to approach your overall objective that will be more inclusive to different people and personalities - from cooking to outdoor activities to alternative team-building ideas.
- Consider introverts - While networking may be an extrovert’s playground, it can be an introvert's nightmare. Rather than only focusing on classic social work events, consider alternative team-building or participative events (or activities within any given event) that engage people in a way that creates relational curiosity - where they are together addressing a topic or task, and via that, naturally learning about each other. When engaged in relational curiosity, connections occur organically.
- Be clear about invites - Be clear upfront about who is invited to be in attendance at the event. Make sure that invites are received and that attendance is encouraged but voluntary. Other than the need to accommodate assistants or other support for attendees, don’t make exceptions (invite just one client) that create ripple problems.
- Inappropriate behavior still applies - Work events, especially fueled by alcohol, can be a slippery ground for inappropriate behavior, so make sure that employees realize the general organizational code of conduct applies and that misconduct towards other employees is unacceptable no matter the setting. A derogatory comment doesn’t fly because you’re at a restaurant instead of the office.
- Collect feedback - If you’re holding the event for the benefit of your employees, whether it’s educational or a reward, find out if that is working and if it is meeting employees needs. Ask your employees for feedback on events, but also ask for their ideas. Allow that feedback loop to inform greater inclusion in your upcoming corporate events.
With intention, your corporate work events can be a greater amplifier of inclusion and belonging in the workplace.