July is finally here and despite the heat and humidity, it’s Americans’ favorite month for vacations and enjoying the great outdoors. Back in 1952, probably to sell more hotdog buns, The American Bakers’ Association declared July to be National Picnic Month. Picnics were popularized in the mid-18th century when royal park lands, particularly in Europe, were opened to the public. The word itself is derived from the French term for al fresco dining — piquenique. Personally, I’ve never been all that enthusiastic about eating outdoors, especially considering the bugs, the pollen and, of course, the heat. I just don’t see how sweating contributes to the pleasure of dining.
There are a lot of different kinds of picnics. Romantic picnics, family picnics, church picnics, school picnics and, of course, company picnics. According to a recent survey by Accountemps, just about half of American companies now provide some type of summer company picnic or equivalent. This is down somewhat from a decade ago when the Society for Human Resource Management reported that over 60 percent of companies offered this perk. As for employees, most would rather see higher wages, flexible work hours, or getting off early on Fridays during the summer.
Never-the-less, the company picnic is a venerable tradition in many organizations. Numerous human resources experts see it as a way to not only boosting morale, but also a means to improve teamwork and internal communications. Most of these events also include families. That way the company not only expresses appreciation to their employees, but acknowledges their families as well.
Most company picnics originally began as barbecues held in public parks. Free food and opportunities for socializing were the main attractions. Later, sporting events such as softball and volleyball were added, along with humorous competitive games such as three-legged races, potato sack races, hula hoop competitions and water balloon tosses.
The classic company picnic was portrayed in the season five finale of NBC’s sitcom “The Office.” This episode included all the classic company picnic games, as well as a cutthroat volleyball tournament. In the early 2000s, Microsoft put on enormous company picnics that lasted three days and had over 10,000 attendees. These impressive events soon got out hand and were deemed too impersonal. Microsoft later changed the format to smaller, more intimate team events.
I don’t recall attending any company picnics as a child. My father, however, was a fireman and I can fondly remember the Firemen’s Picnic every summer, which was for firefighters and their families. Along with food and the usual games there was also a small lake where they held a “Fishing Rodeo” for children every year. Most impressive of all, however, was their “all-the-ice-cream-you-can-eat” policy. They kept an enormous amount of frozen novelties available all day for kids, such as Dixie Cups, Drumsticks, Cho-Cho’s, Ice Cream Sandwiches, Dreamsicles, Fudgesicles and Eskimo Pies. It was my dream come true.
As an adult, I’ve been to a number of company picnics. Many have been at attractions like theme parks or zoos. The zoo is always a great place for families with children. At one zoo outing there were some complaints about inappropriate camel behavior, as well as the quality of the food. One employee claimed that his hot dog had stripes on it. Some employees prefer old-fashioned company picnics held in parks with campfires, games and traditional picnic fare like hot dogs, hamburgers and potato salad. .
I attended one such company party right after I had started a new job. I was trying to make a good impression. It reminds me of the Simpson episode in which the family attends a company picnic and Homer says to Bart and Lisa, “My boss is going to be at this picnic so I want you to show your father some love or respect.” Lisa said, “Tough choice.” Bart said, “I’m taking respect.”
My boss at the time was known for keeping track of employees who attended and participated in such events. He took non-attendance personally. I bought a new polo shirt for this picnic. Unfortunately, I had only been there a few minutes when I dropped a hot dog, drenched in mustard, (bad choice on my part) down the front of my brand new shirt. The mustard completely stained the shirt and for the rest of the picnic people came up and asked me what happened. To top things off, the water pump went out on our car the same day.
Oddly enough, I have been to two company picnics that featured pig roasts. One took place in Mississippi and the other in Florida. The same supervisor had hired me at two different mental health centers. The pig roasting process involved digging a large pit, burning a lot of wood to make coals, and then throwing in a whole seasoned pig wrapped in banana leaves and tin foil. The hot pit was then covered with a canvas so the pig could cook for about 10 hours.
The pig roast in Mississippi turned out to be quite popular, but the one in Florida was a dud. At the time of the Florida company picnic, morale was poor to start with and inviting the employees to a pig roast luau just seemed to make matters worse. With wages low, it was as if they were saying they wanted “bread not circuses.”
Peter Fleming from the University of London and Andrew Sturdy from the University of Warwick have studied what has been called “forced fun at work.” They say that sometimes such “fun events” may mask a company’s darker side and desire to over control their employees. Mandatory good times and the enforced requirement to maintain a jovial facade may just add an additional burden to already difficult jobs.
When we lived near Orlando, my wife Diane worked for a private hospital, which went all out for their company picnics and parties. One year, we attended a country barbecue at a fancy Disney hotel and afterward had an evening dessert cruise on a Disney riverboat.
Since we’ve been in Indiana we’ve been at company picnics at Deam Lake, Buffalo Trace Park and Huber’s Barn Bash. The Deam Lake picnic was held too early in the year when the weather was too cold. Attendance was so low that I remember them handing out buttermilk pies to attendees, since there was so much food left over.
Lately, most summer outings at my place of work have been to venues that the employees seem to enjoy the most. The Belle of Louisville is especially popular for employees with children or grandchildren, while Churchill Downs went over well with adults. This year, we will be going to Holiday World with a very large group. Free soft drinks and suntan lotion — that’s almost as good as all the ice cream you can eat.
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.