Is it time to kill the office Christmas party?​

Has the Christmas party become so politically correct it feels like another boring work function? Photo: Janie Barrett
Has the Christmas party become so politically correct it feels like another boring work function? Photo: Janie Barrett

A friend is imploring his employer to ditch this year's Christmas party. Not because he hates the joint or his colleagues, but because the party has become so politically correct it feels like another boring work function.

The party used to start early on Thursday evening and extend well into the night. The company paid for everything. There was an unwritten rule that staff came to work a little later on Friday and left earlier. There was always some gossip and plenty of fun (those crazy accountants!).

For the past few years, his firm's party has been at lunchtime on Wednesday. Staff pay for their drinks. Most return to work by mid-afternoon, for appearances. Conversation is stilted. The biggest scandal is someone ordering a light beer.

Worse, staff receive multiple emails from the HR department in the lead-up to the party, reminding them of their responsibilities and the firm's expectations. The party starts to resemble a wake, where staff mourn the death of workplace fun.

"It's excruciating," my friend complained. "Christmas parties used to be great. Ours has become so dull that it's not worth going to." Fewer staff are attending each year because they are supposedly "snowed with work", he says.

I understand companies putting the clamps on Christmas parties. There's too much reputational, legal and financial risk from drunken staff who forget the party is at a workplace and that usual occupational health and safety rules, and company expectations, apply. No employee should face or tolerate inappropriate behaviour at their firm's party.

That said, being too risk averse about Christmas parties defeats their purpose. A good party rewards staff for hard work, celebrates success and motivates people. It brings employees together in one room, some of whom rarely meet face-to-face.

In some ways, a good Christmas party has never been so important. As more staff communicate online, hot-desk, work remotely or are buried in mobile devices all day, the chance to get together in person – even if just once a year at the Christmas party – is valuable.

Also, as companies restrain wages growth and expect staff to work longer for the same or less pay, a Christmas party is one way to reward staff without pay rises. Done well, it is a useful contributor to office morale and organisation culture.

A bad party can do harm. I recall an employer who decided employees should pay for their meal, after the firm made record profits that year. Staff complained.

Holding the party at lunchtime and expecting staff to return to work soon afterwards is equally annoying. The flexibility to take a few hours off work during or after the party, within reason, was a way to thank employees for their efforts. Now, staff feel a shortened Christmas party is a yet another way for employers to squeeze them.

Perhaps the biggest loss is not being able to talk to your boss, their boss or a manager of another department in an informal setting. There's nothing worse than being stuck at a boring table and making awkward small-talk with colleagues over lunch. So much for the benefits of company networking at the Christmas party.

Again, I won't downplay the risks of poorly organised Christmas parties. Companies that provide too much alcohol, for too long, and do not monitor behaviour at the event or consider how staff will get home, must share the blame if things go wrong.

The protection and welfare of every staff member at Christmas parties must be paramount in the event's planning. One person being harassed by an alcohol-fuelled moron is one too many and ample evidence why companies should limit their party.

But there's always a risk that companies go too far and become a "nanny state". They forget that 99 per cent of staff do the right thing, treat each other with respect and know which boundaries cannot be crossed at the Christmas party. And that the other 1 per cent can be managed in the lead-up to the event or monitored during it.

With good corporate communication before the party, staff can understand the risks, adapt their behaviour if needed, monitor their colleagues and take early action at the first sign of problems.  And still have some workplace fun.