How to Make Corporate Holiday Parties Even More Awkward?

The winter holidays are fast approaching, with Thanksgiving just around the corner and Christmas and the rest soon after. And with the holiday season comes the dreaded annual tradition that is likely to make its post-pandemic return: the corporate holiday party. Work friends aren’t the people you’d necessarily choose to spend your free time with, so about half of the attendees would rather be somewhere else. A large percentage are ambivalent, of course. And then there are the people for whom the work holiday party is the best night of the year. It’s a weird mix of pseudo-professionalism, free booze, and awkwardness.

But that said, office parties are probably a good way to build camaraderie among coworkers. And that’s important. There are lots of ways to do that, too. For example, you could have team lunches in the office, bring everyone to an escape room for an hour, play office triva, or even sing songs in praise of the company and its CEO.

Okay, that last idea seems ridiculous. But it’s real — or was. If you worked for IBM during the first part of the 20th century, chances are, you were also singing about the glory of the machines you made.

IBM — then called “The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company” — was founded in 1911 when a bunch of smaller companies combined into one larger one. At its inception, IBM had roughly 1,300 employees, making it a large employer on day one. And when Thomas J. Watson joined the company in 1914, it really took off. Watson was chairman and CEO of IBM from then until his death in 1956. When Watson died, IBM employed roughly 72,500 employees. Watson was known to be a talented but unscrupulous leader who believed that loyalty to one’s employer was a hallmark of business success. So, he asked his employees to sing.

In 1927, Watson ordered the company to publish a songbook titled “Songs of the IBM,” to be distributed to employees. As Network World reported, “Watson felt that song singing was a way to build character and instill company loyalty. ‘Songs of the IBM’ started with the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and followed with more than 80 IBM-specific ditties.” The 1935 songbook is available on IBM’s website as a pdf here, and if you flip through it, you’ll see some lyrics that are befuddling to modern ears. There are five songs literally singing the praises of Waston, calling him “the guiding light” who is “honored everywhere he’s known” as employees vow that “we will follow and serve with you forever.” There are songs to dozens of other executives as well, and also to a couple of employees who had 40 or more years with the company (and its predecessor companies, for those doing the math). There’s even a song for the salesforce who can’t quite close a sale:

Oh! how I love to get up in the morning,
Oh! how I love to get out and work;
But the thing I can’t make out
Is to hear a prospect shout:
“You gotta come back, you gotta come back,
You gotta come back tomorrow.”
Some day I’m going to get that order,
I know they need I.B.M. Machines,
But that doesn’t help my quota, so
Next day I’ll put it over–Oh!
That’s why I love to get out and work.

Ridiculous? Sure — but it apparently worked. According to a 2007 study of the songbook, “IBM managers routinely and successfully used songs from the IBM songbook to engage, enthuse, and inspire employees during a number of decades in the mid-20th century,” as a way to create a sense of belonging. Further, as Ars Technica explains, the timing of the songbook’s original use mattered:

When viewed from the perspective of the Depression and post-Depression era, the singing is still silly—but it also makes a lot more sense. Watson reportedly wanted to inspire loyalty and cohesion among employees—and, remember, this was also an era where “normal” employee behavior was to work at a single company for most of one’s professional life, and then retire with a pension. It’s certainly a lot easier to sing a company’s praises if there’s paid retirement at the end of the last verse.

But alas, IBM no longer asks its employees to sing. Use of the songbook waned in the 1950s and, after Watson’s death, all but disappeared. Today, if an IBM employee is singing at a company outing, you may want to call them a cab.

Bonus fact: Watson’s leadership style, as noted above, was unscrupulous — he had little qualms about profiting off of evil, as demonstrated by a decision he made in 1937: selling machines to Nazi Germany. The Washington Post explains:

In June 1937, Thomas J. Watson, founder of International Business Machines Corp., accepted an honor that would come to haunt him, a medal created by Adolf Hitler for foreign citizens “who made themselves deserving of the German Reich.” Embedded with swastikas and eagles, the medal was dramatic confirmation of IBM’s contribution to the automation of Nazi Germany.

At the time, Germany was second only to the United States as IBM’s best customer. Historians have since documented how IBM punch-card technology, the precursor to the computer, did everything from helping to make German trains run on time to facilitating Hitler’s rearmament program to tabulating the census data that were an important element in the Nazi leader’s murderous racial politics.

From the Archives: The First Computer Bug: An IBM computer with a literal bug.