Friday, December 5, 2008

And You Think You Have Problems

Consider the case of the poor sod-- that's British slang for a 48 year old male senior manager-- who wrote to Lucy Kellaway of the "Financial Times" to ask a burning question: Does he have to go to the office Christmas party? Link here.

If he sounds like a whiny child asking whether he really has to go to school, then you have captured the tone of the query.

As it happens, this man made a solemn vow to himself last year, to the effect that he would "never again" attend one of these celebrations. And he would have happily kept his word, were it not for the recession.

I, for one, would tend to place considerable value on sworn vows, even those made only to oneself. Yet, a vow made in a fit of pique should, if possible, be discarded. That is what his mind is beginning to tell him. Potential unemployment, like pain, focuses the mind.

As you might expect, many of those who have offered him advice on the "Financial Times" website have made it clear that he has a bad attitude toward his company and its culture. If he advertises his sour disposition and general disrespect in his everyday work, then his job is probably in some danger... recession or no.

Besides, given the fact that he has a job and that his company is among the few still holding Christmas parties, he should be able to find good reason to rejoice. That is what a rational person would be thinking.

Our sod, however, recalls last year's party as an unspeakable trauma, to the point where this year's party is "the most dreaded event of the social year."

Last year he worked himself into high dudgeon over the "fake camaraderie," the "excessive alcohol consumption," and, as though that were not enough, "the hideous vulgarity of it all."

Do you feel his pain? If not, let's make a stab at empathy. Imagine last year's party, a raucous event that was bubbling over with the raw energy of youthful exuberance. And let us imagine that our 48 year old sod was feeling somewhat out of it. One person's "hideous vulgarity" is another, probably, younger person's idea of a good time.

A normally-constituted older person would accept the reality of his advancing age and would arrive early and leave before the high jinks shifted into higher gear.

Our sod did not think in these terms. He responded to the festivities, one imagines, by oozing the kind of unctuousness that is going to alienate everyone in the room.

He had not considered that it is possible to act your age and still to have a good time among people who are half your age.

A Christmas party, like many other events that count as crucial to the creation of a strong corporate culture, matters far more in the breach than in the observance.

In many ways minor obligations are more telling than major ones. It's like the man who is having a job interview over lunch. He is thoroughly ingratiating to his potential future colleagues, but is extremely rude to the waiter. If you are the interviewer you must hold the rudeness against him. It tells you that his charm is unreal.

Going to a Christmas party requires so little effort that our sod will look very bad indeed if he blows it off. He will be telling his colleagues that he does not want to celebrate the end of the year with them. They will probably be able to read in his tone of voice or facial expressions that he considers them to be vulgar, pretentious, and empty.

It is not just a question of holding on to a job. It is a question of doing a job well and effectively in a difficulty business environment. At times like these people should do everything in their power to ensure the effective function of the company and the good morale of the staff. One essential step in that direction is showing up at a party that you may have outgrown. It does not feel like too great a sacrifice to make for the good of the team.

Skipping the party with a lame excuse is very bad form. It will likely grant you many unhappy returns of the day.

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