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Sadly, the Party's Not Over

Lucy Kellaway writes about management for The Financial Times. The following is excerpted from her column on the annual office holiday party ritual.

Why is it that people who have spent the rest of the year sensibly loading paper into the photocopier or holding long meetings on strategic resource planning, suddenly, for one evening a year, leave their sense behind and head for humiliation and debauchery?

You could say it is just demon alcohol. Give people a lot of free booze and watch the results. But that is only part of it. The truth is that Christmas and work simply do not go together. The festive spirit and the office culture are like oil and water. Mix them and the result is unstable.

I suspect the reason that people drink so much at office Christmas parties is because they are both tense and bored. The vision of your boss attempting to let his hair down is enough to make anybody reach for the bottle. And even if the boss presents no particular problem, partying with your colleagues can be hard work. You may get on fine inside the office but outside it, what have you to say to each other?

Every year our department goes out for a sedate little lunch. We attempt jolly chitchat for a couple of hours, drink some wine, pull a cracker and get back in time to finish the day's work. No matter how much we like each other, and how hard we tell each other what fun it was, I don't think anybody enjoys themselves. Not really.

Part of the problem is that enjoyment on these occasions is compulsory. That is a killjoy, for a start. The obligation to have fun is a curse of all staff socials but it is particularly bad at Christmas when you are meant to be not only full of joy but full of good will, too. There is nothing that makes me feel more lacking in either than looking at my colleagues wearing silly hats, or -- heaven forbid -- dressed up as Father Christmas.

You could argue that the incompatibility between Christmas and work shows something is amiss. That office culture is all wrong -- if we can't handle a bit of partying with our colleagues over Christmas then our teams must be pretty dysfunctional. In fact it shows nothing of the sort. It is both natural and desirable for people to behave differently at work from the way they behave at parties. The result is that when we try to switch from professional mode to cheeky Rudolf mode the clash of gears is pretty painful.

The management lesson in this may seem clear enough. If the office Christmas party is expensive and unenjoyable and fails to bring staff closer together, the obvious course of action is simply to scrap it in future. But to announce that Christmas is off would be met by howls of protest, even by those who never enjoy it. The company would be branded a Scrooge and would not live it down. So I fear we are stuck with it.

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2006.

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Lucy Kellaway