The season of goodwill is at hand. The relentless marketing campaigns on television that have saturated our screens since October will have alerted you to this fact, along with children demanding glitzy toys the price of stealth bombers. Soon we will have to brace our bodies for an onslaught of booze, carbohydrates and turkey meat drier than the Gobi desert. However, before we can take this well-earned break from the office, we must face the Christmas Party.
For many, this event every December (or November, or even January) fills the heart with glee. It is a chance to drink, chat, dance, and appreciate one's workmates - people who've shared the highs and lows of the previous 12 months. It is conviviality in a Christmas setting. For others it's a grim duty which, for the sake of protocol, must be endured. It means washing down execrable food with plastic beakers of Bulgarian country wine, while wearing a stupid hat in the company of people you've been trying to avoid for months. For some employees, the party will spell disaster.
Every year normally sensible people turn up at a Christmas do, only to leave a few hours later with their reputation in tatters, never to be seen in the same way again.
Problems arise when you attempt to combine business with pleasure. When alcohol is thrown into the social mix, the well-defined lines of rank and status within a company can become blurred. The popular view in the US is to consider the Christmas bash as a business event, so everyone watches their manners while drinking diet Coke. However, in the UK we have one of the world's most dedicated drinking cultures. The soft-drink punchbowl is likely to be as popular as Iain Duncan Smith. Alcohol brings British workers out of themselves, and out of it.
'Alcohol has a direct effect on the brain,' explains Dr Guy Ratcliffe, executive director of the Medical Council on Alcohol. 'It makes us more over-confident, more jocular, more punchy. It can change our behaviour to the point where we become a problem for other people.'
Alcohol is a very simple molecule that is rapidly absorbed through the stomach and is then distributed throughout the water component of the body - and we are largely water. Christmas parties are often occasions for binge-drinking, which can result in outright tragedy. 'I've seen it in my career,' says Ratcliffe. 'People get carried away, often having been encouraged by others. There is the bravado factor of the occasion.
They leave the party with dangerously high levels of blood alcohol. Inebriated and alone, they can lapse into a coma, which may in itself kill them, or they drown in their own vomit.'
Worst-case scenario aside, excessive booze is more likely to cause clumsy passes at co-workers, moments of drunken sincerity leading to protestations of love or hatred, ludicrous dancing, fighting, and puddles of sick.
Public displays of such poor behaviour can damage a company. Charles Cotton, reward adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development, feels that businesses need to examine carefully the Christmas party. 'You have to think what the party is for, what are your aims and objectives?' A well-run party should leave workers feeling happy and appreciated. Companies that fail to understand the importance of this risk alienating the people who's loyalty they depend on. Bosses must bear in mind what their workers want from their yuletide festivities.
'Organisations should think strategically about the party and consider the messages they're sending to employees. It's about recognising their contribution to the business,' explains Cotton. 'A well-funded party will impact one way, but a poorly funded event is going to send a very different and detrimental message. It may well be better to have no party rather than one that hasn't been properly provided for.'
Do not assume that far-sighted strategic thinking is the domain of larger businesses; this isn't always the case, as Linda Mansfield, MD of Christmas Parties Unlimited explains.
'Some of the big companies will say, "You can have X amount of money, the rest you must fund yourselves". Others pay nothing towards it at all. But we have a client with only 20 employees that is providing 150 per head.'
It doesn't endear employees to their bosses when they see some poor devil nominated to arrange the party, who then shuffles around the office attempting to squeeze the requisite cash from the workforce.
Bursting at the themes
Mansfield's company arranges themed parties, such as "Ratpack and gangster", or an Abba tribute, but the traditional turkey dinner still remains popular.
'Businesses seem more aware of what people want. It's all about knowing what the mix of people is and the sort of things they enjoy,' she says.
'Many put a choice of three parties to the vote and let the employees decide.'
The box to the right should provide some sage advice for both employees and employers. No one wants to humiliate themselves, to be the butt of jokes until March, to be facing an industrial tribunal or to be considered some latter-day Scrooge who couldn't give a hoot for the well-being and morale of staff members. It's a party so have fun, but remember you are without the comfort blanket of anonymity provided at a house-party. You are known by all and will be remembered. As Mansfield says: 'People should go and enjoy themselves - but some people will enjoy themselves too much.'
Employment taxes update, p99
DON'T MESS UP …
• Avoid excessive drinking - this is the most common cause of disaster. It can lead to vomiting on the FD, dancing like The Office's David Brent, punch-throwing, vandalism and tasteless jokes that backfire.
• Don't make sexual advances - tribunals and courts don't make special dispensations for Christmas parties.
• Remember you're with fellow employees, not at your best mate's house.
• Attend the party - even if it's your favourite night on telly. If everyone else has a silly hat on, don your own, or look aloof.
• Dress appropriately - the overtly sexy look should be avoided - if you resemble a Parisian madame, that is all you will be remembered for.
• Arrive early, but don't be the last to leave - you'll only regret it in the morning.
• Be prepared to put on a decent event - that at least shows you respect your staff.
• Never invite clients - this may stifle the party and lose you business. It isn't a networking opportunity.
• Join in, but don't stay too late, remember this is for the troops not the generals.