I love a party at the best of times: food, wine, friends and an opportunity to cut loose is the reward earned after working long and hard. But the end of year Christmas party has become a challenge for those of us in HR, and an easy event to criticise for those who love to belittle HR.
I've spoken with numerous MD's, business executives and managers over the years who've told me that the end of year Christmas party has simply gotten too hard, too political or just too concerning to deal with and they wish they could get rid of it. I feel like I've seen it all or I've been told about it all:
Staff abusing the MD, executives or managers about the way they run the company ("lady, you have no f-ing idea what goes on in your own business")
Accusations of religious discrimination ("as a non Christian I find the emphasis on Christmas excludes me and my beliefs and so should be cancelled")
Sexual harassment ("I was just telling her to her face what we talk about in the lunch room: she's got great tits. Look: I’ve got a picture Davo took of them and sent to me. I mean it's a compliment really")
Staff deliberately damaging company property ("end of year shenanigans, ease up and unclench you bean counter")
Staff deliberately damaging the party venue's property ("the company can afford it you tight arse")
Physical violence fuelled by drunken resentment/virtue ("he had it coming mate, but I did outside of work so you can't pin anything on me!")
Theft (no ones paying any attention bro, now's the time!)
Public shaming of colleagues (smart phones with cameras + social media = shame & embarrassment.)
Injuries (look at me dancing on the table, whoopsie)
Hospitalisation (ever had your stomach pumped as you wanted to get "value for money" out of the free bar?)
Accidents on the way home (drunken driving after assuring friends they were taking a cab home, sloshed staggering: tripped and fell on tram lines, blotto in charge of a bicycle)
Arrests and criminal convictions (theft, damage to public or private property)
Next day regrets (also see public shaming) about last nights behaviour
I've been asked what to do about the end of year Christmas party every year for so long that it's standing meeting in my diary every October. And a meeting no one really wants to attend. Should we cancel the parties altogether? Should we make the parties alcohol free? Should we hold separate parties for separate departments or groups of employees? Do we invite partners? What if we can't afford to invite partners anymore? Should they be on work premises, in a private home or hired venue? How do we stop people doing bad things (see above list) that ruin the party for some or many staff?
And the simple answer is there is no simple answer: it all depends on the combination of staff moral, company culture, alcohol or substance consumption on the day and how many jerks you may have within your business. Like every HR activity, we're weighing the risks against all the other factors involved and advising the organisation to choose the action with least risk associated with it.
As an HR nerd (god I love a well written policy), an organisation can't "policy" it's way around or out the Christmas party conundrum. There is too much of the human element involved. But every year I read blogs or articles written by non HR people pointing the finger and shouting HR FAILED: accusing HR of not doing their job because we couldn't prevent people doing silly or bad things (again, above list) or accusing HR of being the Organisations party pooper because we have done our jobs and reminded people of how they should conduct themselves at the end of year Christmas party. It's lose lose. Or, as I often think, cop-out blame allocation because it's too hard to accept the fact that no one person or department can ever totally mitigate every risk involved in holding any company celebration.
And to be honest, lose lose just shits me.
So what do I suggest as we draw closer to the end of the year and the Christmas party looms into view? (Apart from people keeping their hands to themselves and going home after 3 drinks?)
Have a strong HR policy on company celebrations
Make sure your employment contracts clearly reference the need to comply with company policies, and that being convicted of a crime may lead to disciplinary action.
Remind people about the policy (as well as your code of conduct, bullying/discrimination/harassment/victimisation and work health safety policies) a week or two before the party. Use humour to dispel some of the "kill joy" aura but be firm
Remind people that it's technically a work event, so all company policies will apply to behaviours and conduct (if you wouldn't do it at work, you shouldn't do it during the party). Again, use humour
Remind people of the drink driving laws
Remind people that parties are not the time or place to raise issues or concerns
Remind people it's supposed to be fun. So don't be a jerk and ruin the party for some just because you can