The Retirement Party

The Retirement Party

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2014-01-13 Betty Sullivan

Prior to December, I can’t recall that I have ever attended a retirement party held in the workplace. In fact, the only retirement party I can recall was a party for the father of one of my college buddies that took place soon after I graduated, and that one took place in their home.

My employer provides funding for retirement parties. This is probably not the case at many other companies, which may explain why many retirement parties happen privately, on a smaller scale, or not at all.

But in December, not only did I have my own party, but I was asked to serve as Master of Ceremonies for two other retirement parties – both for managers I had worked for. Of course, being the MC pretty much required me to be part of the planning process. So, in a few short weeks, I got a crash course on planning retirement parties.

In this post, I’ll share some of the things I learned and some suggestions for throwing a fun and memorable retirement party, as well as other ways to commemorate the end of a working career.

There are several options for celebrating a retirement. Factors that enter into this decision include budget, how many people you wish to invite and how easy it will be for them to attend, how much of a program or ceremony you wish to have, and whether or not you wish to serve alcohol. The greatest consideration is what the retiree wants.

All three of the retirement parties I participated in were held at lunchtime during a work day, at work.

The advantages of the workplace luncheon are that it’s easiest for people to attend, you probably have the use of a projector and sound system if you need them, and you won’t have non-guests nearby, as you would if you hold the party in a restaurant or bar.

The disadvantages are that you can’t serve alcohol (depending on company policy), people may be limited on time or have work conflicts, and you’ll have to provide for non-employee guests to be signed in to the premises and escorted (again, depending on company policy).

My initial choice for my retirement party was to have a happy hour gathering in a local restaurant/bar after work. It would take place in a nearby establishment that had a side room that could be separated from the general public and we would provide an hors d’oeuvre buffet and one or two rounds of drinks. This would provide a more relaxed, informal and jovial setting than a workplace event.

Ultimately, I decided not to do this, because attendance would probably suffer significantly. At the end of the day, many people have family or other commitments that would prevent them from coming, and not everybody drinks or enjoys a bar atmosphere. This scenario is also not conducive to any type of program beyond a few minutes.

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If you’re planning a retirement party, it’s essential to ask the retiree what type of party (s)he wants and who (s)he would like to invite. This is NOT an occasion for a surprise party! This is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and the guest of honor should have what (s)he wants.

There are pros and cons to inviting a lot of people to your retirement party. Of course, budget considerations may inform how many people can be invited.

I invited a lot of people to mine, figuring that people didn’t have to accept the invitation if they weren’t particularly interested in coming. Some didn’t, and that’s okay. I would rather have erred on the side of inviting someone who declined than not inviting someone who would like to come. Some people simply have conflicts at the date and time you select.

The biggest drawback to inviting a larger number of people is that the retiree will have a smaller amount of time to spend with each person. Most people will want to congratulate them, thank them, and spend a few minutes talking about their plans, or whatever. If you invite too many people, some may feel that they didn’t get enough time with the retiree.

Pictures make a wonderful addition to a retirement party.

If the party will be in a room where a projector and screen (or clear white wall) will be available, you can have a slide show running throughout the event, except during the program. If the room isn’t conducive to a slide show, you can make several large posters with photo montages and place them around the room.

If there aren’t many pictures available of the person in work-related settings, it’s fine to include pictures from the person’s personal life, as long as they aren’t embarrassing and don’t infringe on the person’s privacy. For example, you should avoid pictures of the person wearing a swim suit that may be too revealing or pictures of the person drunk at a stripper bar.

Childhood pictures will probably go over well – even high school pictures with the funny hairstyles and out-of-style clothing.

If your retirement party is going to include a period of time in which people who worked with the retiree (currently or in the past) will get a chance to speak, it’s a good idea to have a Master of Ceremonies (MC). Hopefully, someone in your circle of acquaintances is a good fit for this role. Someone who belongs to a local Toastmasters club or has other public speaking experience would be a good choice.

Speakers should be solicited and confirmed ahead of time, and should be given the direction that their speech should last no longer than 3-5 minutes (depending on how many speakers you will have).

It is important to insist that speakers keep their remarks brief; nothing will throw a wet rag over the party like someone droning on and on.

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All three of the retirement parties I recently took part in also had a brief period for “open mic.” This is a risky proposition, especially if there is alcohol being served at your event. The MC should make it clear to people who come up for open mic that they should keep their remarks brief, and the MC should be ready to step in and thank the speaker (a polite way to cut him/her off) if their remarks are inappropriate or go on for too long.

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Humor is an essential ingredient for a retirement party.

A retirement party should be an uplifting, fun occasion. The best speeches are those that recall good times or funny incidents – as long as they aren’t embarrassing. Brief expressions of gratitude or heartfelt appreciation are okay, but too much becomes trite after a while.

At my retirement party, the MC took several of my vacation pictures and Photoshopped himself into the background, as if he had been stalking me. This was hilarious! Another colleague created several JibJab videos using my face, my husband’s, and those of several co-workers. This was also very well received.

As I was preparing for my role as MC for the retirement parties of my two former managers, I searched the internet for retirement jokes. I was quite disappointed with what I found. Most jokes were simply not funny, and many were mean-spirited, dirty or otherwise inappropriate.

Any jokes or attempts at humor that are embarrassing, crass, or mean-spirited have no place whatsoever at a retirement party.

It’s okay to gently poke fun at the person, especially if their personality characteristics and foibles are well-known and embraced by the honoree, and it’s clear to everyone that the remarks are coming from a place of love and good humor. One of my former managers was a statistician, and was well-known for being painstakingly detail- and accuracy-oriented. Humor that played upon this quality was very well received.

This is no place to air grudges or grind axes.

The old adage, “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” most certainly applies to retirement parties. Those who are selected to speak at the event should be coached accordingly.

Of course, the retiree should have the opportunity to speak, and (s)he should probably be scheduled last on the agenda. While the retiree will probably have plenty of things to say, it’s best to keep his/her remarks to ten minutes.

If you are the retiree, focusing on a few key memories and keeping it light and humorous will be most appreciated by the audience.

They are probably not interesting in hearing a full run-down of your career and all the awards you received. Droning on for a long time will dampen the party and have people heading for the door. While it’s true that this is your day and you are the person being honored, you don’t want to cap off your career by boring people and leaving them with that as their lasting impression of you.

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The retirement party should be a memorable event.

It’s a good idea to have a good photographer and/or videographer on hand.

A colleague of mine is a professional-quality photographer, and was enlisted to take pictures at my party. He took over 100 pictures, most of which were well-composed and showed people at their best. He captured everyone in the room in at least one photo. I’ll cherish those for years to come. (His pictures are included in this post.)

For one of my managers’ party, the planning team offered all attendees the opportunity to send a handwritten note and/or photos in ahead of time. These were compiled into a scrapbook that was given to the honoree at the event, and they were also part of the slideshow that was shown as people arrived and ate lunch.

Another idea is to set up a web site which provides a brief overview of the retiree’s career and plans for the future, and provides a place where people can write well-wishes and tributes to the retiree.

Hopefully this will never happen to you, but someday you may find yourself in the position of having to attend or even plan a party for someone who is not well liked.

There are very few people I have ever worked with whom I have intently disliked, but there was one such woman at the second job I had after college. She was crabby, mean-spirited, and made life miserable for everyone around her. Finally, she got a transfer to another job outside of our organization. As was customary, we had a going-away lunch for her. My first inclination was not to attend, since I really didn’t care for this person in the least.

My manager convinced me to go by saying that we could all view it not so much as a way to honor her, but as a celebration that she would no longer be around to make us miserable. In hindsight, I’m glad I went.

I’ve learned over the years that it’s always more honorable to take the high road. That person would have been hurt if very few people came to her going-away lunch. Do it as an act of kindness, even if you were never shown kindness by that person.

In summary, a retirement party should be a fun, celebratory, memorable affair.  It will come off best if it is thoughtfully planned by a team of several people. They should ask the retiree what (s)he wants, and make every reasonable effort to accommodate those wishes.

If you are the retiree, don’t be bashful about letting your planners know what you want, but stop short of meddling or micromanaging. The planning team may come up with some brilliant ideas that you never thought of!

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Photo credit (all photos): Cody Morgan

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