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No. 136 – Booze, boats and budgets: Your work Christmas party questions answered

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6 December 2023

Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week: work Christmas parties.

My workplace always holds its Christmas party on the last working day of the year. It’s onsite, usually for a few hours during the afternoon, with no “after party” planned. Alcohol and finger food are provided, but once the party reaches its designated finish time of 5pm, the drinks are quickly packed up – party over. Management’s justification revolves around us getting an afternoon off work, but many staff members feel this “party” doesn’t really embody the spirit of the company Christmas event. Is this a case of indignant entitlement? Or are our employers playing the part of Scrooge in this Christmas carol?

At risk of being a Scrooge myself, yes, I think this is a case of indignant entitlement. Long gone are the days when employers feel comfortable or willing to provide an open bar for all, long into the night. Christmas parties have always – since forever – been the scene of many a workplace behaviour complaint and so it is good to see so many taking a responsible approach. It sounds like your employer is finding a middle ground which allows everyone to relax in the last few hours of the year, but also not create an environment where there are repercussions for months to come. I am sure anyone who wants to kick on afterwards will, so enjoy.

My employer has had a tough year financially. We normally have a massive annual Christmas party with families, but this year the whole thing has been cancelled. Morale at work was already low and now it’s even worse. Many people feel this is just added punishment, in addition to not receiving our annual bonuses. Is cancelling Christmas the best approach, or could they have handled it better?

My instinct is to agree that regardless of the year just passed, it is important to bring everyone together and maintain morale as best you can. Christmas parties are often a natural time to do that. However, financially, Christmas celebrations and end of year bonuses are also a massive expense and as your company is finding, in tough times, they are much harder to maintain. In days gone by you would see companies flying everyone to a glamorous location or doing something incredibly extravagant to celebrate the end of the year. Unfortunately, it is rarely sustainable.

I am a supporter of being consistent when it comes to end of year celebrations. It may be a more moderate event, but it means employees know what to expect, and the event can be used to bring everyone together as a team before the year ends. Many employers have also taken the approach of ending massive all-company or all-office events and leave it up to individual teams or divisions to arrange their own celebrations, which is also a viable approach.

My workplace has their Christmas party on a boat on Sydney Harbour every year and I hate it. I hate being stuck on the boat with my colleagues who get drunker each hour, while I can’t get off. Most of the people who enjoy the Christmas party are those who are on the organising committee – the rest of us wish it was just at a restaurant where we can eat, then leave. This year will be the fifth year our party is on a boat, and I am dreading it. I am thinking of calling in sick, but I know people won’t believe me and will think less of me. Any suggestions?

Your letter made me laugh since I get seasick and also hate being stuck on boats! It sounds like this year the party is well and truly locked in on the Harbour, so you may need to go (although if you really don’t want to, I am sure people will understand – say you get sea sick, and that it will be a workplace hazard if you vomit all over everyone).

Where I do think you can focus your attention is on what happens next year. Why not offer to go on the organising committee and suggest something new? Or get together with a bunch of colleagues and all suggest a new location for the Christmas party? Perhaps mention after five years there was chatter about needing to refresh the end of year celebration? Either way, unfortunately you will have to decide this year if you can handle it, but I would focus on 2024 and plan a mutiny before you end up back at sea. Good luck!

To submit a question about work, careers or leadership, visit (you will not be asked to provide your name or any identifying information. Letters may be edited).

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