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Office parties: Are you headed for crisis?


Office Christmas party

It’s that time of year again, when HR must set about organising the good old Christmas shindig, but how can you ensure everyone is kept happy, religious pitfalls are avoided and all goes smoothly? Sarah Fletcher talks to some festive HR Zone members.

Every Christmas the same warnings are dealt out to HR professionals: Plan your office party carefully, don’t create legal risks by providing the alcohol that may cause accidents, and don’t stress the religious element in case you offend certain staff. It’s almost enough to make you want to pull down the decorations and go into hibernation until January.

So as we draw closer to the festive season, would it be wise to move the date of the annual office party, to avoid the potential issues associated with Christmas?

“It has become an issue because people have made it so,” argues HR manager Fiona Fritz. “We are in danger here of becoming too politically correct for our own good.” Do we really apologise too much?

It might be tempting to call the whole thing off, but sadly it’s not that simple, says Fritz. “If you don’t have a Christmas party then you upset a lot of people and HR becomes very unpopular,” she comments.

Bah humbug

Is it impossible to keep everyone – or even anyone – happy? Is HR doomed to play Scrooge this Christmas?

“Lots of people I know don’t go to office parties because they simply don’t like them,” adds Fritz. “Whenever you have one, for whatever reason, they are still not going to come so I think you just can’t win.”

HR manager Jo Guy echoes this sentiment, adding that you cannot force people to attend an office celebration.

“Being seen to cancel Christmas is terrible PR, as seen in the few organisations that have tried.”

Nikki Brun, HR manager

Or can you? Is the solution to force employees to attend the office party in the hope they’ll have fun in the end? “We have never been criticised because we have put on a party,” says Guy; but would you be universally despised if you insisted that all employees attend?

Unless you want to turn employees against you with alarming speed, just don’t do it, says HR manager Nikki Brun. “Being seen to cancel Christmas is terrible PR, as seen in the few organisations that have tried,” she notes.

However, if you don’t insist that people have a good time, you just might make it through alive: “Whilst ‘obligatory fun’ parties are invariably hard work for all concerned, a relaxed environment where people are there because they want to be is really great,” she adds.

Don’t think you can avoid problems by moving the date. Halloween has passed for another year, but you haven’t missed a key opportunity, says Brun. “I work for a large department store that has a big Halloween celebration each year. We always get a handful of complaints saying we are celebrating witchcraft!

“If we think that celebrating Christmas will offend other religions and we move the party to, say, Halloween, you risk offending devout Christians who refuse to celebrate a pagan festival.”

Party pitfalls

So are we just a naton of moaners and spoil sports? “It would be really nice if in a multicultural society we could all enjoy each other’s festivals – then nobody could be offended,” argues Fritz.

Unfortunately, even if you remove the potential religious grievances, there’s still no guarantee you’ll survive the office party without a long list of complaints from disgruntled employees.

Brun makes the case that Carphone Warehouse stages an annual party for staff and as the workforce is mostly young, they are loved. She points out, however, that age discrimination is a potential issue. There’s even the risk that we’re discriminating just by considering that age may be a concern.

“The only real impact of Christmas is on those who don’t take part in religion at all and even then who could really complain about a festival celebrating love?”

Nik Kellingley, training consultant

Perhaps the solution is to grit your teeth, brave the complaints and just try to get through the festive season without too many casualties. Or, as training consultant Nik Kellingley suggests, we should just get over it.

“I’m lost as to why anyone who actually understood the issue would care,” he says. “The only real impact of Christmas is on those who don’t take part in religion at all and even then who could really complain about a festival celebrating love?”

Ultimately, do a few Christmas decorations really cause such offence? “I live in Dubai at the moment and soon I’ll be moving round the Middle East where no one much cares about the impact of Christmas parties. They have Christmas trees and nights out, but it doesn’t stop Islam from being the important religion,” he points out. Why, then, should anyone really be offended?

So unless Christmas is cancelled this year, don’t bother moving the date of the office party to avoid complaints. Just hope your staff are full of the festive spirit. Perhaps it’s an issue without any satisfying solution: “I don’t think HR can win,” says Brun, “but we have to do our best to try!”

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