VITAL SIGNS: Christmas Rap

VITAL SIGNS: Christmas Rap - I've never been really corporate. The Christmas party test proves it. I'm not bothered. I really can't think about our collective hooleys for two seconds running. My colleagues are almost as bad; we're just not team players.

by PETER YORK, in his persona as Peter Wallis, managing director ofconsultants SRUe-mail:
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

I've never been really corporate. The Christmas party test proves it. I'm not bothered. I really can't think about our collective hooleys for two seconds running. My colleagues are almost as bad; we're just not team players.

Yet for most of the working world, Christmas parties remain inordinately important, planned for, dreamt about, remembered and, most probably, blackmailed about too. Last year we held our Christmas party in my house. There was only one speech, no disco and no unpleasantness. We're a mile from the mainstream.

I do see life; kind people invite me to their splendid company do's out of pity and I hear about corporate parties in my pastoral work - the quality of these, like the quality of food, comes up when you're asking people about an organisation's culture and morale.

Top down, Christmas parties are important because they test your connections, your responsiveness, your ability to catch the mood. So, unless you've got a fantastically good excuse, yes, you do hold one, particularly for the foot-soldiers. Bottom up, giving a party is a sign you care, it's a sign we're in it together, and it's really symbolic about the spirit of the beehive.

What people want - in big organisations anyway - is a chance to meet the senior management as people. It's a test and you mustn't fail it.

A few will want to see the management subject to the Lord of Misrule - silly, drunk and sick. That's what happens if you don't plan things and leave people to get rat-arsed at the company's expense.

Just two unhappy drunks in challenge mode can cause a lot of trouble in a party with no momentum.

Plan the evening with a sequence of things to do and a time to close.

Some of the things you should do together, some time should be free to drift and talk, particularly if you've hired an interesting venue.

If you're not having a party, you have to manage that too. There's got to be a reason, not a default. You could have agreed to give a fair clip to a charity that matters to everyone, or to serve Christmas dinner to the homeless, if people want to feel saintly. But mostly they won't.

Treat it like a kid's party and you won't go far wrong. If you're a small, Oxbridge and brainy organisation, a dose of quality cleverness - if you're so clever, you'll know what that means - followed by a full-on fantastic dinner will work. If you're equally rich, but legion, then take the Albert Hall or similar, and a famous host.

Disco is difficult and shouldn't be mandatory. If you do it, the unifying factor is the '70s. Everyone relates to Abba, Chic and the Bee Gees, but music after 1987 is divisive - people who've never been near Ibiza simply don't know the moves. Be careful of people's comfort factors.

And don't have a cash bar. Better no bar at all, restricting it to wine and beer if you're really pushed. People remember small meannesses for ever and if you've fed and watered them well already, the bar really won't cost much. Just think what you spent on recruitment and a few hundred quid on whisky chasers looks like small change.

But this is all jumping the gun. The important thing is to find the internal team who'll make it happen. It shouldn't be your secretary and other top floor people acting like lady almoners. It's important that the party team looks representative, but even more that they love the job. It's equally important to brief them on what you want out of the event - what messages it should give about the company.

And something about you.

As the boss, you need to think really hard about your own positioning.

Do you welcome people at the door (John Birt forced himself to at the BBC's big Christmas parties), do you do a bit of microphone work or take a back seat? People are expecting something of you and acting naturally isn't enough. If you'd acted naturally, you wouldn't be where you are.

You also need to play to your positioning; it isn't the right place to show you're a real person who can fall under the table with the best of them. But don't just sit with the top table and leave early either. You need to speak to everyone and stick it out until the appointed hour.

The other big question is about partners. Do you invite them or other outsiders? My instinct is for just us. Partners will get to go to other Christmas parties, but you won't get another chance to work on those big team feelings for another year.

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