Robey’s Blog: Whoop-whoop! That’s the sound of da fun-police!
I will burn in Hell for the title of this blog, I realize. But there’s a common and not-entirely-inaccurate idea that HR is the fun police, generally, and it’s something that comes out in particular at Christmas because of the one event that all HR professionals look to with equal parts anticipation and dread: the office Christmas Party.
Ah. Perhaps you knew that HR staff dread the Christmas Party, but maybe you didn’t know that we also look forward to them for reasons that might be different to those of other employees. So perhaps I should explain that, briefly, before we turn to the dread.
Because of our role as mediators, peacemakers, investigators and occasional messengers of doom, HR sits outside the normal flow of work. And although we are sometimes privy to some of the really interesting gossip, we tend to come into possession of it through interviews and meetings rather than over the water-cooler. When we hear about fumblings in the stationery cupboard, our minds head towards COSHH risks and conflicts of interest. It’s all rather dull.
The Christmas Party is a rare opportunity for us to talk to people without worrying about it ending up in a formal hearing. We get to find out more about what people really care about, what motivates and scares them and – basically – what they’re like than we do in 51 other weeks a year.
But, yes, we also dread the Christmas Party. And the reason for this is because we understand what it is: an extension of the office, plus alcohol. And there’s a good reason why we don’t usually allow people to drink alcohol in the office: bad things happen. Poor decisions are made. Relationships are destroyed. Injuries occur. So is it any wonder that the addition of alcohol – often in large quantities – to our office environment is one that causes us worry and, yes, can lead to us seeming like our only desire is to stop our colleagues having a bit of fun.
Hang on a minute! Extension of the office? But it’s in another venue entirely. It’s after office hours. No one’s doing any work. How can a party be an extension of the office?
The sad fact is – as innumerable HR blogs better than mine will confirm every year, at about this time – that when you gather anywhere, at any time, when the main reason you’re getting together is because you work together, it’s an extension of the office.
Pub with your boss after work? Office.
Hotel room at the weekend between two residential training courses with a colleague? Office.
Back garden of the MD at a summer barbecue attended by a few others from work and dozens of others with nothing to do with it? Still office.
Given that, the Christmas Party is obviously an extension of the office. So the addition of alcohol – often in copious quantities at this time of year – is naturally going to be something that causes your friendly neighbourhood HR professional no end of conniptions. But – and this is important – we don’t want to be the fun police. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: we want to make sure that not only is the Christmas Party fun, but that it’s fun for everyone and that, when you look back on it in the grim, grey future of January, you can do so with a smile instead of a grimace.
So here are my recommendations for making sure your Christmas Party memories are ones of cheer and friendship:
- Go formal. The addition of alcohol and food and entertainment can cause you to forget that it’s an extension of the office. But going for some level of formal wear is a visual reminder that a level of decorum is still expected. It’s also fun to have an excuse to dress up!
- Have jobs. You all have jobs to do in the office, so why not have different, fun jobs to do at the party? Whether you are Chief Mingling Officer or Head of Party-poppers, having a purpose not only gives you something to do but also makes sure that everyone is contributing. And if the party is something to which everyone is contributing, hopefully the inclination to ruin it will be reduced.
- Organize chaos. One problem with alcohol is that it diminishes our ability to make rational decisions. Make your bad decisions before the alcohol gets involved. If you have the sort of company where practical jokes are going to be a thing, plan them in advance, in the cold light of day, when you’ll be able to make a sober judgement: is this funny, or will it actually get me fired? For example, give everyone (except the Board members) a silly sticker and see how many you can all attach to them before they notice. Which Board member gets the most stickers?
- Keep your friends close. You should have a plan for the event: you should know how and when you’re getting there and how and when you’re getting home. But to make sure your plan has a better chance of going to, um, plan, get a buddy involved – particularly at the end. If you’re going home with someone else who has vanished, you’ll track them down when it’s time to go. And vice versa.
- Let auld acquaintance be forgot. If you are due to have a one-to-one with your manager or need to have a performance appraisal with someone in your team, get it all done the week before the party or earlier. Because no one wants to end up doing that whilst half-cut.
- Leave while it’s still fun. The point to escape is the point at which it’s still good. The moment the tiredness, over-eating, awful dancing and/or nausea start impinging on your good times you’ve gone past “peak fun”. Get out.
But before I end, I can’t overlook the fact that this is the year of #MeToo. For any organization wanting to ensure a safe environment, free of sexual harassment and assault, the Christmas Party is a risk that needs managing. Make sure your training on harassment and sex discrimination are up to date. Make sure your managers know how to handle complaints – at the event itself or in its aftermath. Make sure your people know that their voices will be heard, at the time or afterwards.
Because if you think HR are the fun police, just wait until you meet the actual police.