Creative contests perk up office holiday parties

Teresa F. Lindeman
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh — Kristina Korade had been to traditional holiday office parties on previous jobs. “Very conservative and quiet,” she recalled.

Seven years ago, she took a job at the Smith Brothers Agency, a Pittsburgh-area advertising agency. Once she figured out exactly what her co-workers had planned for the company’s holiday gathering, she thought: “Oh, wow, this is awesome.”

That was the year they introduced the ugly sweater contest.

She loves her job as a producer working with various teams to make sure everything is being executed on time and on budget. But this was her moment to tap her creative side. And she crushed it by picking up a red knit sweater at a thrift store and decorating it with giant fake poinsettias, ribbons and “sparkly things.”

The office holiday party has a long, storied history in the American workplace. It can be risky — offering food and alcohol to people who’ve spent long hours toiling next to each other and developing ties as complicated as those in any family.

At this time of year, job counselors and etiquette experts issue reminders not to imbibe too much and not to tell the boss’ husband about that time you broke the copier and didn’t tell anyone.

Banning office parties might seem like a smart move, but the staffing firm OfficeTeam, out of Menlo Park, Calif., noted in its 2014 survey that 52 percent of workers described such gatherings as their favorite work-related holiday celebration.

The data, collected in more than 400 telephone interviews with office workers, didn’t find as much support for other options: Just 10 percent liked informal gift exchanges.

Some — 4 percent — didn’t want to get involved in celebrating holidays at work — at all. Those people are not likely to embrace an ugly holiday sweater contest, at least at the office.

If Zakk Weston had been surveyed, he might have been part of the 21 percent who said the worst thing about office holiday parties is boring activities.

“I didn’t think much of the tradition until I came to Smith Brothers,” said the guy who gives his title as “creative technologist” but who may be better known as the guy who recruits new employees for the annual holiday karaoke contest.

An eight-year employee of the agency, he, too, was a winner in his first competition, covering The Kinks’ “Father Christmas.”

He was such a natural — and has such a lack of fear of getting up in front of his colleagues and potentially embarrassing himself — that he now emcees the event.

Weston reports there have been memorable performances by competitors over the years — like the guy who couldn’t exactly play harmonica but did anyway, wearing an orange ski mask. “He did not win. But he won my heart,” Weston said.

Some songs never go out of style. “I have probably heard more versions of Motorhead’s ‘Ace of Spades’ than any other band,” he said.

Both Weston and Korade claimed their employer’s holiday traditions build camaraderie — and not just the Stockholm syndrome kind.

“I think it becomes kind of a shared experience,” said Weston, who believes co-workers see sides of each other that aren’t evident when going over budgets or developing marketing campaigns.

This year he’s expecting about 20 competitors — generally the newest hires — to sing at the party. The agency employs around 60 people, he said.

“It’s a really great bonding experience,” Korade said.

Unless someone takes video, the karaoke performances will be short and possibly sweet. But contestants should be forewarned that the rules are a bit more rigorous for the ugly sweater contest.

Participants are required to wear their sweaters — or whatever costume they whip up — all day at the office.

Korade took the title back last year with a homemade snow globe costume, created by merging a clear beach ball with figures, Christmas trees and fake snow.

By the time she’d worn her creation through office meetings, meals and presentations, she figured she’d really earned that award.