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Well, it’s that time of year again, and office holiday parties are in full swing. Are your employees looking forward to enjoying a glass of wine and some hors d’oeuvres with their pals, having a few laughs over the Secret Santa exchange, maybe catching up with co-workers they don’t see very often? Or will they be plastering a frozen smile on their face and waiting for their boss to head to the restroom so they can make a discreet exit?

Holiday parties foster team-building, managers are told. A wealth of research has shown that managers believe that getting employees together for these and other social gatherings like company picnics, happy hours, softball games, baby showers, and charity fundraisers—that is, integrating their personal and professional lives—will strengthen relationships and ultimately lead to a more effective workplace (Nippert-Eng 1996, Pratt and Rosa 2003). Classic psychological research on relationship formation supports this too (Altman and Taylor 1973, Hays 1984, Werner and Parmelee 1979). It almost seems like a no-brainer.

Yet in the study “Getting Closer at the Company Party: Integration Experiences, Racial Dissimilarity, and Workplace Relationships”—which I co-authored with Tracy L. Dumas of the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University and Katherine W. Phillips of Columbia Business School—we found that this approach doesn’t work for people who work in racially diverse settings, which are more and more prevalent in today’s increasingly diverse work environment. Getting substantially closer to co-workers at the company party unfortunately appears only to operate in homogenous work groups: that is, when the people in question are the same race.

Our findings were based on survey data from two distinct samples: first, a group of 228 MBA students of which 10% were under-represented minorities, including African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, and those self-classified as “other.” 13% were Asian Americans, and the majority—77%-- were Caucasian. Then we looked at a sample of 141 individuals in the US workforce. Here again, the majority were Caucasian (68%), with under-represented groups constituting 24%, and Asian-Americans, 8%.

In these studies we focus on racial dissimilarity, not just being an underrepresented minority. Racial minorities are more likely to find themselves in racially dissimilar groups from a sheer numbers perspective; however, our findings also apply to those who are not racial minorities but who work in a racially mixed group.

In the surveys, we asked the respondents how much they participated in company-sponsored social activities (what we call “integration behaviors”); whether they brought their families, and how much they talked about their personal life with co-workers. We also inquired about how much they enjoyed or felt comfortable at such gatherings, and at a later point in time asked them how close they felt to individual colleagues. The result: a robust finding that integration behaviors increase bonding among racially similar employees, but not among those who are racially dissimilar.

It can be hard to share personal information when you feel that you’re not like the other people in your work setting—possibly because of the assumptions you are making (or the reality) about how others will react. Where you went to school, what music you listen to, what you like to do on the weekend, or even the cultural references you use might be noticeably different. In fact, another study by Katherine Phillips, one of my co-authors on this paper, found that in groups in which there were salient differences between participants, engaging in self-disclosure (such as office “getting to know you” exercises) can actually end up highlighting dissimilarities instead of minimizing them (Phillips, Northcraft, and Neale 2006). Both that study and ours beg a re-evaluation of Gordon Allport’s “contact hypothesis” put forth in his classic 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice, in which he theorized that the more contact we have with people dissimilar to us, the more our biases disappear, and the closer we become. Allport (1954) had a very important caveat to the contact hypothesis which was that it would only be effective in peer based interactions. It may be that in work settings where hierarchy and status differences abound, that this informal “getting to know you” approach is not sufficient for those who are in racially diverse groups.

Why do those who are racially different from others in their work groups make the effort to attend (and our studies show they do attend) office-related social events if they are not reaping the social benefits? We did some additional analysis which indicated they are motivated largely by external rewards such as good performance appraisals, bonuses, or fulfilling their manager’s expectations.

It’s ironic that a standard office practice meant to promote employee bonding seems to be ineffective for the people who arguably need it most—those demographically different from the majority. What can managers do to help remedy this situation? They might work to ensure employees feel they have a choice regarding socializing with co-workers or talking about their personal life at work. They might also pay attention to the quality of employees’ interactions, and try to foster a company culture that accepts and respects differences.

Understanding what’s really going on at the office party—underneath all the festive lights, catchy seasonal tunes, and apparently friendly banter—is an important first step in figuring out how to promote truly meaningful connections between co-workers in today’s ethnically diverse organizations.

References:

Allport GW (1954) The Nature of Prejudice (Doubleday, New York).

Altman I, Taylor D (1973) Social Penetration: The Development of Interpersonal Relationships (Rinehart & Winston, New York).

Dumas, T.L., Phillips, K.W., and Rothbard, N. P., Getting closer at the company party: Integration experiences, racial dissimilarity, and workplace relationships. Organization Science, 24, 5: 1377-1401

Hays RB (1984) The development and maintenance of friendship. J. Soc. Personal Relationships 1:75–98.

Nippert-Eng CE (1996) Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries Through Everyday Life (University of Chicago Press, Chicago).

Nishii L (2013) The benefits of climate for inclusion for gender diverse groups. Acad. Management J. Forthcoming.

Phillips KW, Northcraft G, Neale M (2006) Surface-level diversity and information sharing: When does deep-level similarity help? Group Processes Intergroup Relations 9:467–482.

Pratt MG, Rosa JA (2003) Transforming work-family conflict into commitment in network marketing organizations. Acad. Management J. 46:395–418.

Werner C, Parmelee P (1979) Similarity of activity preferences among friends: Those who play together stay together. Soc. Psych.Quart. 42:62–66.

About Nancy Rothbard:

Prof. Nancy Rothbard is an award-winning expert in work motivation, teamwork, work-life balance, and leadership. She is the David Pottruck Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. She is also faculty director of "Women's Executive Leadership: Business Strategies for Success," an Wharton Executive Education program running March 16-20, 2015

Prior to Wharton, Prof. Rothbard was on the faculty of the Kellogg Graduate School of Management, Northwestern University, and holds degrees from Brown University and the University of Michigan. She has published her research in top academic research journals in her field and her work has been discussed in the general media in outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, ABC News, Business Week, CNN. Forbes, National Public Radio, US News & World Report and the Washington Post.

About the Authors

Nancy Rothbard, Ph.D.

Nancy Rothbard, Ph.D., David Pottruck Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Sigal Barsade, Ph.D.

Sigal Barsade, Ph.D., is the Joseph Frank Bernstein Professor of Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

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