If you’ve been anywhere near a shopping centre or a TV channel with adverts recently, one thing will be clear. Yep, it’s that time of year again. Or at least it will be soon enough for us to be bombarded with ‘promotional messages’. These aren’t the only messages we get, of course: already the blogs are alive with dire warnings about banning camera phones from the Christmas party (“Sticking a mobile phone camera lens under a toilet door …” – what kind of parties are employment lawyers going to, we wonder), disciplinary procedures following fighting or sexual harassment, and lost productivity?)
We know that this is a global, multi-faith, multicultural world and business is business, although we can see where PunkRockHR Girl is coming from on in one snippet from her Ten Common Holiday Mistakes At Work:
Diversity & inclusiveness means that you assume good intent and cut people some slack. Not every moment is a teachable moment …
Some of the decorations we’ve seen here and there manage to redefine ‘hanging offence’ without any human involvement, but surely acknowledging one period of the year as a time for mutual goodwill should be a good thing? (Even if this does imply that, for some people, mutual goodwill, tolerance and good intent are inappropriate for the rest of the year.)
We know that are some whose first instinct at the first sign of festivity, celebration or even mild signs of glee are to think of ways of banning it. We’re not naming names; they’ll just be opening fewer envelopes than the rest of us this month (even if we realise that problems brings them a form of glee all in itself). And we know political correctness has its reasons, although the Employers Forum on Belief takes a sanguine line itself:
Christmas is now associated with a variety of images as diverse as the Nativity, “winter wonderland”, “robin redbreast”, and Santa Claus. Some of these themes have little rooting in historical fact or religious belief, and they change over time – many of today’s images are, for example, centred on notions of family values persisting from Dickens and the Victorian age. [ …] Relatively few depictions of Christmas are per se religious; even when they are, the accompanying messaging need not necessarily be Christian (for well over half a century UNICEF, for example, has used neutral multi-lingual greetings in its festive cards). [ …] Unless Christian values are an intrinsic part of the organisation’s ethos an employer might therefore wish to examine using secular language for Christmas greetings and consult with employees more generally on appropriate ways to mark and celebrate festivals of importance to other religions.”
Even the Health & Safety Executive (and, yes, we’ve had jocular emails about ‘Elf & Safety at Work’: no more please, you’re spoiling us …) acknowledges that most organisations manage to put up their – suitably seasonal rather than pointedly belief-based – decorations without drama, litigation or stern memos: rather than leaving them wobbling about on a wheeled chair, most companies manage to “just sensibly provide their staff with suitable step ladders”. (If you are expecting to be invaded by a marauding herd of employment lawyers with digital phone-cameras, XpertHR has thoughtfully provided a Work Christmas party – employment law checklist and Top 10 tips for a successful work Christmas party.)
But let’s tiptoe our way through this minefield and back to where we came in: goodwill. If you’re of the Scrooge tendency, you might be struck by the following snippet from the Work Relationships website:
Whilst we do not want to add two and two together and get seven, it is fair to say that how your boss treats his team at Christmas is illustrative of their views on the importance of employee satisfaction.”
Ok, they used the ‘C’ word, but they have a point. In most offices, most people – or, more accurately, those that are still there – have just made it through a tough year. Showing some recognition that that is valued is not just in keeping with the broad moral tone of the ‘season’, it’s good practice. (Actually, it’s good practice all year round, but one step at a time …) If the budget really is tight, consult staff – what would they appreciate as a gesture (forgoing the traditional event for either a DIY affair or a company donation to charity, perhaps)? Purely pragmatically, some key talent in your organisation may have ‘made it through the storm’ with a fixed grin and gritted teeth: what kind of message will they interpret otherwise? Mince pies and sausage rolls (and their vegetarian equivalents) are substantially cheaper than recruitment agencies, after all.
If you are the given type, you might also want to apply as much moderation to the message of the gift as you would want to apply to other aspects of celebrating. Yann Martel, Canadian author of the Booker Prize winning The Life of Pi, has been sending Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, a book and letter every two weeks since April 2007. While Martel – according to the accompanying project website What Is Stephen Harper Reading? – is seeking ‘to make suggestions to his stillness’ (by which I think he means appealing to his recipient’s moments of reflection, which seems a noble gesture even given the probable workload of a head of state), there is an accompanying undertone of ‘you don’t spend enough on arts funding, so here is a steady drip feed of reminders from one of the country’s more widely recognised authors’. Martel is a fine writer, and shows good taste in books, but this is a little like receiving soap and deodorant as a gift: to reference another well-known Canadian, the medium can become the message. (Martel is publishing the – few as probably expected – responses he receives. Although these are republished without commentary, it seems the Prime Minister’s office – however politely it writes back – feels a little like Hyacinth Bucket keeps sending it air fresheners.)
So remember – no matter how we handle its cultural resonances, we can’t stop the end of December from happening. Nor we can prevent the recipients of our largesse (should we pause to invent ‘mediumesse’?) from interpreting them. If this is a time of gifts, whatever their form, try to make the gift all about the receiver not the giver. In a recent article that cited CIPD survey results showing that net employee job satisfaction score has dipped substantially from +46 to +37 since the spring, and that stress, conflict and bullying are on the rise, HRZone recently published a quote from Former Minister of State for UK Trade & Investment Lord Digby Jones:
When you thought the world was ending and you thought it could get no worse and then it did, you said no payrises and we don’t want you on Fridays, and you all said ‘we’re in this together.’,” he said. “Well, remember them as you start to climb back up. Stick an extra £20 in their paypacket and say thanks. […] Throw them a party at Christmas. Workers are not listening to what you say, they’re watching what you do.”
Interestingly, Charlie Duff (HRZone.co.uk’s editor), commented in agreement:
A feeling of optimism really can contribute and this is something HR can seek to inspire in every organisation. This may be HR’s time to shine – working with business to create great teams and fantastic organisations with drive and focus.
HR has a hard job, being in the thick of making unpopular redundancies, implementing pay freezes and asking managers to do more with less – but HR also has the power to be sensitive to survivors, to inspire and engage and appreciate their employees. This can make all the difference between a good organisation and a great one.”
So, happy Winterval everybody. Can I offer you a cheese straw or are you sticking with the humbugs?