We all understand the premise: the end-of-year 'do' is an opportunity for management and staff to bond; for managers to be seen as 'real people' and for everyone, from the CEO to the open-plan savannah dwellers, to recognise we are all on the same side. (Except at performance review time but that’s another story.)
The passionate people from HR think of the end-of-year celebrations as an exciting team-building opportunity. I don’t know about you but 'passionate' people make me nervous and anything that’s 'exciting' is to be avoided at all costs. Maybe that’s just me but…
By the time employees get to the end of the year, they are physically tired as well as change-fatigued. When that fateful day does finally come, there is the crushing realisation that they are going to have to spend another three hours with people they’ve been with all day... all week... all year. Which is why some staff Christmas parties resemble wakes – without the merriment.
For some companies though, the end of year celebration is such a deeply entrenched ritual that the show will go on whether employees like it or not. And they’re usually organised in that spirit as well.
Most invitations to the modern corporate Christmas party naturally carry warnings and proscribed behaviours – usually the well intentioned work of the HR and Legal departments, those renowned corporate Funsters. The invitation will quite often be followed up with an email from the Head of People & Culture with serious reminders about the behaviour expected of employees at the Christmas party. So far it’s sounding like the party’s going to be a real blast.
Needless to say, 'expected behavior' contains very few behaviours which will be widely discussed after the event. Just to be on the right side of any misdeeds that may yet take place in 'quiet rooms' or between partitions, remember almost no where these days is without security cameras.
Do the words trust, respect and dignity mean anything to these employers? Probably not if alcohol is involved in anyway. If companies are so concerned about what their employees are going to get up to at the Christmas party though, how about just sending them a subscription to National Geographic for Christmas and leave at that?
While some may welcome the entertainment value of middle managers dancing badly at Christmas parties, it is generally agreed bosses should be banned from dancing at all. There are some things that an employee simply shouldn’t see and high on the list is one’s team leader doing the demented turkey stomp to Nutbush City Limits. Such things, when seen, cannot be unseen.
It’s extremely difficult to keep a straight face when discussing the Henderson account with your superior who the night before was parading on the dance floor with all the grace and charm of a one-legged emu.
How a manager is perceived by staff and peers is subject to many factors, not all of which are within the manager’s control. But Christmas party behaviour is. It is a mistake to assume that some kind of egalitarian fog descends upon the end of year gathering, providing a forgiving context within which all behaviour is seen.
A manager behaving inadvisedly will be remembered precisely as that – which will either confirm existing perceptions or inform new less flattering ones.
Just as Christmas parties should not be treated like pop-up discos, nor should they be treated as confessionals. Managers and team leaders crying into their beer that it's lonely at the top is not only very boring, it also suggests someone who is not coping.
It seems very strange indeed that men and women who spend so much of the year building their 'personal brands' put all their diligent work at risk at the staff Christmas party.
Playing dice with reputation is fraught with danger. Managers who use Christmas parties to show off their rendition of My Way or live out their secret desire to be a member of Riverdance will either have the audience in the palm of their hands or they will have created their own David Brent moment to be replayed on mobile devices forever more.
“What happens at the Christmas party stays at the Christmas party” is a tenet best left untested.
Leo D'Angelo Fisher specialises in the practice and malpractice of management. In more than three decades as a business journalist he has worked for BRW, The Australian Financial Review and a range of other business magazines in Australia and Hong Kong. His sometimes acerbic observations of management and its fads has brought him a wide following. He blogs at leodangelofisher.com.