We are entering the time of year that makes seasoned managers cringe and human resource directors want to leave town. Fine words to the contrary, there is little Peace on Earth at the office now: It’s time for the office Christmas, oops, I mean “holiday” party. Yes, we’ve learned to choke on the word Christmas and insist that the December party where we dress in sparkles, bring wrapped gifts and drink eggnog standing next to an evergreen tree is just a winter event. But language games are the least of it when management has to plan the annual—“no one will be happy no matter what we do”--office holiday party.
This time of year career gurus remind us: you must attend, you should not drink, don’t dress like a stripper and do make small talk with many people. The warnings should certainly be heeded. The annual holiday party is ground zero for what is known in Human Resources as the CLM, or Career Limiting Move. CLM’s include Xeroxing body parts, getting tanked with co-workers and making jokes about the boss to his/her spouse. But love them --or leave them early-- the office holiday party is a ritual of the workplace.
The list of issues is long: do we go out on the town or stay in the building? Is the event during work or after hours? Will there be dancing? Music? And biggest bugaboo: booze or no booze? Divisiveness is in the details. One of the words tossed around liberally in the weeks leading up to the party is “they” as in they don’t have kids, they don’t like to drink, they drink too much, or they don’t have to pay a baby-sitter. Preferences also break down by personality type: Extroverts love the parties; Introverts want to die.
Some offices give money to charity instead but then end up bringing in a deli tray on December 22nd because it doesn’t feel right not to do something. I think it hits us that if we don’t have some kind of party, then we’re admitting that this is work and that these people are not really our family or our best friends. It’s one of the passive deceptions we engage in to smooth life along.
So what’s at the heart of this holiday ritual? Well, for starters we have strong cultural memories and it’s dark this time of year and we are longing for light. Workplaces have their own kind of darkness so it’s human to want to brighten that up too. But there’s more. The office party is really a throwback. Yes, that sushi with sparkles affair in the boardroom is a remnant from the Ebenezer Scrooge days. It’s a flashback to the days when Big Daddy Corporation rewarded its child-like workers with a decent meal and glass of bubbly they could not provide for themselves. The company party was also a time to reset any drifting notions of who owned the means of production.
I remember that kind of event. At the box factory where my Dad worked the assembly line was shut down once a year: the Saturday before Christmas. Hot dogs were served from the corrugator and Santa arrived on a forklift. There were no Bring Your Kids to Work days back then, so the Christmas Party was the chance to see where Dad went to work every day. It was simply understood that the family depended on this place and these people.
As our economy takes a turn we may have come full circle. So step up to the Holiday Office Event: Put on your sparkles, exclaim over the deli tray, and admit to your peers that you couldn’t have done it without them. That is the gift they will remember all year.