Don’t get kissed under the mistletoe at the office party this year

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Lucia Mabasa, MD of Pinpoint One Human Resources, advises companies to rethink staff parties.

IT’S THAT time of the year again. No, not Christmas, it’s even worse: office Christmas parties. It’s time to decompress, destress and just breathe.

We haven’t been able to do so for a while now. Covid-19 stopped the in-person get-togethers. And when the pandemic passed, it was all systems go to start producing the results that the shareholders had to forgo when we were in lockdown.

So, this year, don’t be surprised if the pressure is on to go big for the office party. But what is big? For many companies, it’s an expensive outlay for a lavish end-of-year function that can end in tears and ruin careers.

That’s right, even if it’s out of the office, it’s still an office function. We often forget that; as alcohol levels go up and our inhibitions (along with other things) come down.

We always end up seeing sides of people we never knew existed – and it’s not always a great side either. There are horror stories aplenty and we need to remember them before we go off and make our own. Alcohol makes people behave in a way they wouldn’t normally. Secret crushes are uttered out loud after the third or fourth shooter – and then acted on after the seventh or eighth. The result is always the same – acute embarrassment the next day.

It’s one thing if the people involved in a little instant office romance are on the same pay grade, but it’s invariably catastrophic if they aren’t. I heard of one office party where the female director got into a steamy moment with a junior. The next day the junior didn’t know where to put his eyes, while the director pretended it had never happened – only to proceed to find fault with every piece of work the junior produced for the next couple of months. It made things exceptionally awkward for everyone in the office.

It’s no guarantee either that you will avoid any of this if you hold the function at the office. It makes sense from a cost-efficiency perspective, but you’ll never see your boardroom in the same light if you walk in on two of your staff in full flight with not a stitch of clothing between them. For that matter, if you do decide to have the bash at your offices this year, lock your own office so at least you can have peace of mind when you go to work, that it wasn’t the scene for a stolen assignation.

While you are at it, make sure everyone smokes outside – not just because of the laws that ban smoking inside offices, but because of the real danger of someone under the influence setting a wastepaper basket, and possibly the entire office, alight when they try to stub out their illicit stompie.

Protestations of unrequited love and lust aren’t the only things executives have to worry about at company functions: lowered inhibitions can also mean that any slight that one person might have suffered, real or imagined, can get aired once the booze starts flowing. The result is the same. If someone says something they shouldn’t, tells their subordinate what they really think of them or decides to take a swing at their boss, the power dynamic is altered. Often permanently.

There is no going back from an assault; physical or sexual. It’s a summary dismissal or a suspension while the allegations are investigated. Another thing to remember is that this is the era of the millennial and the smartphone. It’s like Schrodinger’s cat; did the party even happen if someone didn’t post it on Insta or Facebook? What happens at the office party should stay at the office party, but instead, these days – thanks to social media – it’s the root of all evil, especially on Monday morning.

So, perhaps the answer this year is to actually do something different. Maybe make it transformative for your own staff as well as other people’s lives: set aside a day to volunteer somewhere in the morning and then end with a lunch together – or get them to learn something and then have lunch. One year I took my team to the Apartheid Museum, and I know other C-suite executives who have taken their staff to help out at soup kitchens or pack food parcels for the less fortunate.

When you do get to lunch, arrange the sitting thoughtfully. My friend and co-director, Clive, does that on purpose every year to ensure that we do build a team by deliberately disrupting any cliques that might have formed. The key outcome for the end-of-year function is to enhance teamwork so that you can have an even better year the following year by rewarding and recognising the effort of your team this year. Far too often, though, it becomes the exact opposite.

Make this year different. It is possible to relax without having sex on the MD’s desk, it’s possible to exhale without throwing up all over the clerk from receiving. There’s no doubt, it’s been a helluva year, so make it better – not worse – by getting the office party right: Organise Ubers or designated drivers beforehand so everyone can get home safely and, if someone organises an after party (there’s always that person) fight the urge – don’t go.

You’ll thank me in the morning!

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