The Ethics of a Company Holiday Party

I once had an extremely introverted friend who disliked attending parties. Each year, when her company Christmas party rolled around, she felt compelled to attend, even though she hated it. Over the years, this dilemma gave rise to a number of conversations about morality in the workplace. As the holidays are upon us, I thought it an appropriate time to share some of the questions we considered.  I’ll illustrate that those conversations with the following fictitious one…

By a strange coincidence, Diane and her boss Nancy had both been philosophy majors in college, and find themselves discussing the ethics of the company holiday party at, well, the company holiday party.

They had found a quiet corner of the office, shared a brief toast, and get right into it.

“Here’s the thing,” Diane began. “Now, Nancy, as you know, I’m tremendously introverted. It’s not a coincidence that in addition to my philosophy major, I also took classes in accounting and now spend most of my work day in the company of spreadsheets rather than coworkers. We’ve talked about Susan Cain’s TED talk in which she explains that for people like me, being at loud parties is draining and, to be honest, pretty aversive. Forcing me to come to these things is, therefore, unethical.”

Nancy takes a sip of her beer, but appears unimpressed. “Diane, if I forced you to come to the company holiday party, then I might be inclined to agree with you. I might! But you have misrepresented the case. The holiday party is a benefit that we provide to employees – you should try the hummus before you go – and all of the announcements for the party have indicated that the party was optional. How can inviting you to take advantage of an optional benefit be considered using force?”

Diane’s brow furrows. “You’ve made two implicit claims in your question there, Nancy, and both claims are, with all due respect, false. First, the fact that the party is offered as a benefit does not logically entail that attending is a benefit to me. This confuses the intent of the party with the effect of the party. I think you will have to concede that the two are not identical, and if we wanted we could come up with a ton of examples in which a benefit is intended but in the end the effect was costly. Remember the time you got the office tickets to see The Happytime Murders?

Nancy gives a barely perceptible shrug and lets her lids close for an instant. Diane acknowledges the concession with a tip of her wine glass, and continues. “Now, as to whether the party is optional or not, you have assumed, incorrectly, that the fact that the party is explicitly stated as optional entails that it is, as a matter of fact, optional. To take an exaggerated version, suppose someone sticks a gun to your head and says, hey, you can give me your wallet or not. It’s up to you. Is handing over the money optional?”

Diane takes Nancy’s silence as an invitation to continue. “Saying the party is optional neglects the fact that calling an option presumes that there is genuine freedom of choice. But, choices aren’t free if they are made under threat.”

“Who threatened you?” Nancy asks, concern in her voice.

“You did.”

“I did?”

“Yes, though your threat was implicit. It is well known that Department heads take pride in how many of their employees attend the party; attendance is a signal of high morale. If I don’t come, I know that you might hold it against me, even if you don’t mean to.  Not only that, but relationships are built at these events that can have professional repercussions. So no matter what, if I don’t come I lose ground to colleagues who use these events to build their relationships, which puts me at a disadvantage. In some sense, whether or not I suffer some negative consequences if I don’t come to the holiday party is irrelevant because I might. Therefore, because not attending has some chance of harm, my attendance is under threat. So, just as in the case of the mugger, you’re telling me it’s optional, and in some sense it is, but it really isn’t. A choice made under implicit threat is not a free choice, and presenting someone with that choice is therefore unethical.”

Nancy pauses a moment to reflect. “Well, hold on. I’m your boss. There’s nothing wrong with me threatening you. For example, imagine I said, “You must finish the report by Monday, or else you’re fired!  You would have no ethical objection to that threat right? It’s permissible for a boss to threaten an employee, and therefore the implicit threat in the holiday party isn’t unethical.”

Diane shakes her head. “Hold on. The fact that some threats are ethical doesn’t mean that all are. For example, you couldn’t threaten to hurt me if I don’t turn over my wallet to you.” Nancy again shrugs her agreement. “In fact, let’s look at why the Monday deadline is ethical.  That threat is ethical because when I took the job here, I willingly agreed to certain kinds of threats, and promises for that matter. I was saying, sure, in exchange for such and such a salary and benefits, I’m going to allow my boss to threaten me with certain costs, such as being fired, if I don’t fulfill certain duties. Entering into a work contract is to grant, ethically, your ability to impose conditionals – threats and promises – on me.”

“But, crucially, those conditionals are circumscribed by the contract. You certainly can’t mug me. That’s clear. But let’s look at both sides of the conditional: If you don’t X then I will Y. In terms of X, the only things I’ve granted you are Xs that fall within my professional duties. And the only Ys I’ve granted you are Ys that fall within your professional purview. That’s why you can’t say, ‘if you go to the Eagles game with me, I will promote you.’ That violates X. And you can’t say ‘if you don’t get your report in by Monday I will force you to wear the Lazy Hat for a week.’ That violates Y.”

Nancy squints her eyes, reflecting. Diane presses on.

“From this it should be clear that at most the only ethical conditionals must respect X and Y. Even then, there are limits. You can’t threaten me with being fired for being 10 seconds late to a meeting, for example. The point about X and Y is that they put a maximum on explicit or implicit threats. Attending a holiday party is not within my professional duties, so it’s not an X, so it doesn’t pass the test.”

Nancy continues to mull, and takes another sip of her beer. “Well, hold on. Now you’ve blurred a key distinction. True, you contract doesn’t say, explicitly, that you must attend the holiday party. But the employment contract is incomplete. It doesn’t say everything you must do. If the norm here is that employees attend the party, well, that’s part of your duty because following these norms is implicitly part of the contract.” Nancy folds her arms in front of her, a look of pride growing on her face.

“That’s absurd,” Diane says, Nancy’s face returning to its prior state. “The argument that agreeing to a work contract entails that you are then agreeing to threats to comply with any norm is subject to a slippery slope problem. Suppose the norm is for the team to get drinks after work on Friday, and a Jewish person such as me joins the team. Surely it’s unethical to compel complying with that norm. Indeed, there could be any number of reasons that someone might not want – or even might not be able – to comply with a workplace norm, including ones they don’t know about when they are hired.”

“Well, they should have known when they took the job.”

“All of the norms? These things change all the time, and many of them are implicit, and only arrive occasionally… such as the holiday party.”

“True. But there’s no solution to that problem.”

“Yes, there is. Put the required norms in the contract. And, if a norm can’t be put in for whatever reason, then that’s exactly the sort of thing the employee can’t be compelled to do. The ethics are clear if we focus on the fact that the employment agreement says all the things – and only the things – that an employee is agreeing to.”

Nancy puts her fingers to her mouth in thought. “All right, that all seems logical. But if we take these arguments seriously, that I can only threaten you with Ys if you don’t X, and invitations such as the one to the holiday party violate X, well, then, I also can’t ask you to dinner, to watch a game, or I guess even have lunch. That doesn’t seem right.”

Diane shrugs. “I agree. It doesn’t seem right. But that’s why it’s important to work through these things. It seems to me that our choices are, first, to accept that these common practices are unethical, second, find somewhere the argument is flawed, or, third, make those implicit norms we want to enforce explicit in contracts. Heck, you could make attending the holiday party mandatory. This third option is a bit cumbersome, but at least it would put the company on firmer ethical footing.”

Nancy nods quietly. “Diane, I never really thought about the holiday party this way, and I’m sorry. I know these things are aversive to you, and I respect that. If you go home now, I promise I will do my absolute best not to hold it against you.” Nancy places her fingers gently on Diane’s forearm. “I’ve really learned my lesson.”

Diane looks at Nancy’s hand on her arm, and says, “That’s assault.”