Trial of the Christmas Party

By Ben Brown,

The court of public opinion is now in session. On trial is the notorious Christmas party, which is seasonally subjected too much debate about its place in Australia’s modern business climate. Its defendant is director Ben Brown, a staunch supporter of festive drinks and its role for celebrating a successful year. Greg Kouwiloyan, as the prosecutor, argues that there are better alternatives to celebrating over the standard end of season drinks. Ben will begin proceedings.

The Affirmative

I do concede that if you google “work Christmas parties”, you are most likely to get a litany of articles highlighting the worst possible debauchery that have happened at a Christmas party. Yet, we rarely delve into the benefits of the event. A recent study found that 85% of employers found that their end of year party had a positive impact on staff morale and was an important component to keeping staff motivated. Christmas parties do implicitly demonstrate that employees will be rewarded for success and hard work. As an extra incentive, you can reward your staff and receive a rebate. Expenses associated with a Christmas party can be subjected to fringe benefit tax claims, if they are held offsite and if the cost of the event is less than $300 per head.

As well, it builds enthusiasm and momentum for the New Year. It can be the time to announce the direction for the following year and what new strategies will be launched. There have been examples of where the parties have gone overboard, but most are harmless enjoyable affairs. Providing an opportunity for the company to thank the team for their hard work. It’s rare to get everyone in the office and spend quality time together and to build relationships outside your direct team. Christmas parties can act as melting pots, where colleagues mix to discuss opportunities, challenge ideas and strategise. Considering that we spend one-third of our life at work, we spend more time with our colleagues than anyone else in our life, so we should enjoy their company.

Legendary events can heighten an organisations image of being a desirable workplace. This year, a U.K recruiting company took its Melbourne and London offices to Thailand “an all-expenses-paid, seven-night blow out on Thailand’s party island of Phuket.” This may be an outrageous example, but it is on point for the organisation’s values. They believe that their work, recruitment, has the power to transform people’s lives, so for them, their attitude is reflected in their awards.

Fundamentally, we should have trust in our employees to behave, but also to enjoy themselves. And if we cannot trust our employees to behave themselves at a Christmas party, how can we trust them at any corporate function where alcohol is available?

The Negative

This isn’t a case against rewarding staff, allowing them to have a good time or celebrating the year that was, instead, it’s about realising that staff need to be protected from their own behaviour. While the intention of a Christmas party is positive in nature, they have evolved to a point where employees dread the events and are risking their reputation by attending. Consequently, a recent UK study found that only 27% of men and 37% of women interviewed were looking forward to their annual party. There are years on years of examples of where inappropriate behaviour has damaged careers. More disconcerting is that most are aware of the do’s and don’ts of these events, yet, misconduct still occurs. Even big organisations place themselves at reputational risk, through hosting events that are socially inappropriate.

Now, employers are expected to have processes in place to minimise all risks evolved with the event, especially to protect themselves against a legal conundrum. Last year, the Fair Work Commission decided that an employee was unfairly dismissed, even though they sexually harassed and bullied colleagues and told the boss f-off at a Christmas Party event. The Commission ruled that an employee shouldn’t be required to comply with their workplace behaviour policies if they allowed unlimited service of free alcohol at a workplace event. Fundamentally, the employer is now responsible for all behaviour of their team members, yet, it’s impossible to protect against everything. So, it’s best to avoid the fallout and offer something else instead.

On average Australian business spend in excess of $9500 for a Christmas party, but, that money could be reallocated to activities that staff may actually appreciate. Time is of the essence in December, so why not, give your team-members the afternoon off instead? It’s probably a better use of time, rather than having staff nursing a hangover in the office the next day. Or, allocate the funds to charities or organisations that may need the resources. These are more rewarding options for staff.

We shouldn’t accept the status-quo of Christmas parties; instead, we should challenge them to offer a more viable alternative for our staff.

The Conclusion

Considering that we are having a staff end of year party this week, it seems inevitable that Greg was destined to lose this debate. When we decided to take a plunge and start Method Recruitment, we wanted to create a workplace where our staff would have fun. So for us, the December period provides an opportunity to reflect on the year we’ve had and to pay thanks to all those who have helped us on the journey.