Office holiday parties are a polarizing subject. Whether or not you like them probably depends a lot on your relationship with your coworkers and your boss’s propensity for inappropriate drunken remarks. But the question of why these parties take place isn’t particularly complicated: Common sense holds that they’re a good way for companies to build morale and forge a closer-knit workplace.
A paper published in a recent issue of Organization Science, however, suggests out that for members of underrepresented groups, this might not be the case—these parties can actually be counterproductive. It’s just the latest in a growing body of research highlighting how tricky it can be to get dissimilar people to form close bonds.
In “Getting Closer at the Company Party: Integration Experiences, Racial Dissimilarity, and Workplace Relationships” (PDF), Tracy Dumas of Ohio State’s Fisher College of Business, Katherine Phillips of Columbia Business School, and Nancy Rothbard of Wharton conducted studies of two sets of survey data to examine the relationship between what researchers call “integration behaviors”—holiday parties and other forms of non-work socializing—and closeness between co-workers.
“In general, [integration activity] does help,” said Phillips in an interview, “but it doesn’t help as much for people who are demographically dissimilar.” In fact, in both studies Phillips and her co-authors found that overall, the more employees engaged in integration activities, the closer they felt to co-workers—but that this relationship did not hold in a statistically significant way for those who were minorities within their offices.
In the paper, Phillips and her colleagues provide two possible explanations for this based on previous research. First, there’s what researchers call confirmation bias: the basic human tendency to pay more attention to information that confirms what we already believe. Since race is a powerful cue that can trigger many assumptions, even among people who don’t hold any explicit racial prejudices, when we interact with someone of a different race we may have a tendency to internally highlight points of difference between us. The opposite is true when we interact with someone of the same race: there, the tendency will be to gloss over real differences and focus on similarities. So holiday-party conversations with co-workers of different races can, in some cases, unintentionally amplify perceived differences rather than bridge them.
Second, past research has shown that the more homogeneous a group setting gets, the less likely it is for real integration to occur between members of its majority and minority groups. In racially homogeneous environments, members of the minority group feel their minority status more keenly, while members of the majority group become even more likely to bond with those who are similar to them. So in an office that’s, say, only 10 percent black, individual black employees may feel more disconnected at a party than in the smaller group settings of day-to-day office life.
Cheryl Kaiser, a psychology researcher at the University of Washington who studies diversity issues and who was not involved in the study, explained in an email that there are many subtle ways holiday parties and similar gatherings can be less enjoyable for members of minority groups than for others. These events, for example, “may adopt the practices, preferences, and rituals of the dominant group, all of which can convey a lack of belonging or inclusiveness to groups that do not share those preferences. This could lead members of some groups to experience a heightened sense of feeling like outsiders at their organization.” For that reason, she wrote, “It is important for organizations to bring in diverse perspectives and a multicultural mindset when planning these activities, so they can best represent the diversity of the people comprising their organizations.”
“There is definitely a sense of pessimism here, because it is like the old adage, ‘Birds of a feather, flock together,’” said Phillips. “It turns out that there’s lots and lots of evidence that that’s true.”
There is some hope, however—just because humans have certain tendencies toward groupishness doesn’t mean these tendencies are immutable. Phillips and her co-authors suggest that work activities may be better-suited than social ones for bridging racial divides. “[I]n diverse settings where close relationships are more difficult to build, if managers place a greater emphasis on task-related successes and competencies, they may achieve the kind of positive working relationships that are so valuable in organizations,” they write.
Frank Dobbin, a Harvard workplace-diversity researcher who was also not involved in the study, wrote in an email, “The findings in this path-breaking study suggest that putting people from different race and ethnic groups together in the same room for social activities is much less effective in promoting integration than is putting them together in a team working on a common project.”
This sort of sustained engagement can short-circuit racially triggered instances of the confirmation bias, wrote Dobbin. “This research suggests that confirmation bias operates in encounters of short duration,” he wrote. “It takes longer for us to see members of other race and ethnic groups as individuals.” Therefore, since an ongoing work project entails more interaction than a quick chat at a holiday party, “Working side-by-side with someone is the best antidote to prejudice.”
As Kaiser explained, even as co-workers do a better job of seeing each other as individuals in group-work settings, they’re also forming a bonded group. “When diverse groups are working toward a superordinate goal, this can lead to adopting a common identity,” she wrote. “That is, the superordinate goal can cause diverse groups to shift from seeing themselves as distinct groups to seeing themselves as a single group, and this can result in increased trust and the opportunities to build stronger interpersonal ties.”
Diversity issues are surprisingly complicated. That’s why, in many cases, people with the best intentions have made little progress (PDF) in fighting the natural human tendencies toward division and groupishness. The key insight from this study, it seems, is that simply tossing different people into a social setting is not a cure-all for workplace cohesion. In diverse offices, at least, there’s more to workplace camaraderie than holiday music and boozy punch.