With Martin G. Moore

Episode #171

The Christmas Danger Zone: Q&A with Marty and Em

Christmas party season is upon us, and many of you may have already partaken in an early celebration to mark the end of the year.

If you’re a leader trying to navigate the vagaries of the office Christmas party, there are a few considerations that will help you make good decisions.

Let’s face it, you don’t want to be staring down the aftermath of a significant incident in the days following an event. You want everyone to enjoy the celebration appropriately, and at the same time feel as safe and respected as they do in their normal work environment.

In this Q&A episode we cover all things Christmas parties, from venues to fancy dress to alcohol-free zones…and everything in between. It’s our hope that this conversation will help you to navigate this year’s Christmas party with confidence!

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Episode #171 The Christmas Danger Zone: Q&A with Marty and Em

Christmas party season is upon us. Many of you may have already partaken in an early celebration to mark the end of the year. This is my first Christmas in the US for a while, and I’d forgotten how quickly Halloween rolls into Thanksgiving, which then rolls into Christmas. If you’re a leader trying to navigate the vagaries of the office Christmas party, there are a few considerations that will help you make good decisions. Let’s face it, you don’t want to be staring down the aftermath of a significant incident in the days following an event. You want everyone to enjoy the celebration appropriately and, at the same time, feel as safe and respected as they do in their normal work environment.

We’re going to do this one in Q&A format, because as you probably know, my daughter and Chief Executive of Your CEO Mentor, Em, has a different perspective on the end of year celebration – particularly seeing she spent a number of years as a young woman working in marketing agencies. So Em, welcome back to the mic.

Em: It is so good to be back in our last Q&A before the end of the year, which is incredibly exciting! We’ve just wrapped up the October 2021 cohort of Leadership Beyond the Theory. It is a downhill stretch from here. We are rolling into the holidays. So we are covering Christmas parties because we get a lot of questions around this time of year around what’s appropriate and what’s not.


Do you schedule an event during work hours or do you do it outside of work hours?

Marty: Each has a slightly different feel to it. Probably my favourite are Executive dinners and I’ve done a few of these in the past where we invite the Executive’s partners as well. These work really, really well. They’re civilised, they’re intimate. They give you a chance to get to know the Executive’s partners and to also thank them for supporting the person, and being tolerant of the demands that the organisation and I would place on them during the year. Those were always really good events and their time bounded; everyone behaves themselves. The expectations are clear, very, very manageable.

Now, for bigger group and probably at lower levels, something during work hours works pretty well. Lunches are fine, and it lets you capture some goodwill by giving people the afternoon off if you’re in a position to do so. This effectively makes it a company sponsored event.

Are the rules different when the company is organising and paying for the event?

Marty: When you introduce alcohol into the setting, and the company is actually either paying for it or condoning it, drinking responsibly is really important – but it’s even more so at company sponsored events. If you serve or purchase alcohol for your people, you need to exercise your duty of care. That doesn’t go away just because you’re celebrating. It’s important to have some predetermined boundaries. You don’t just want to get there and see what unfolds.

Em: When you say predetermined boundaries, can you give us some examples? What are some of those?

Marty: It’s going to be different in everyone’s context, but the rule is: you’ve got to communicate to everyone before the event, what the expectations are. So basically, you need the values, the standards and the code of conduct that you would normally have in your workplace to carry through to the event. A lot of people get outside the work environment and they let their guard down. They behave differently. They take liberties they should not take, and would never dream of taking if they’re in the office environment.

Em: That makes sense. And that’s really important, even if it’s not an event in the actual workplace.

Marty: Especially if it’s not in the workplace, because that’s when you’re most vulnerable to people doing things differently. And they feel as though the rules may not apply or they’re at least relaxed. They often say the things that they’ve wanted to say to other people, but either didn’t pluck up the courage or thought it might not be appropriate in the workplace – but a change of scenery and a couple of margaritas can break down these boundaries sometimes a little too much.

Em: I can’t say no to a few Christmas margies, Marty. So what’s the best way to communicate expectations? I know with our Christmas party this year, I sent everyone an email uncovering the unsaid bits and pieces because I remember in Christmas parties past, I was kind of always like, okay, well, how do we get home? And do we have to come in at the same time, the next day? You know, all those little bits and pieces.

What are the best ways to communicate expectations?

Marty: You’ve hit the nail on the head. You’ve sent out an email – and when Christmas parties are being organised for large groups of people, there’s normally a bunch of emails that go out at different points, you know, save the date, here’s the venue, here’s what to wear. All that sort of stuff goes out there. So, when you send out that plethora of emails, there’s a reminder that you can put in each time that the organization’s values and behaviours absolutely apply for the duration of the event. And then, of course, if you’re more senior and you get to give a speech or something, not that you want to spend the afternoon talking, but reinforce it then too, verbally.

I would often give a brief, thank you speech of the event itself, you know, sort of like that, that wrap-up of the year, that was “Thank you, everyone” for all their efforts and single out anything exceptional in way of achievements that people should be proud of. Then I’d say something like, “Oh, and because you guys are all highly professional and capable, I know you wouldn’t let anyone down today by not treating people respectfully and professionally.” I think that’s sort of like a catchall for just reminding people. “Okay. You’re all adults, you’re all professional. You’re all competent. You’re all good people. Don’t let yourselves down by not doing the right thing. Just because you have a couple of drinks.”

Em: I love that. But when I’m putting myself in the party-goer’s shoes – you know, everyone’s all hyped up. They’re ready to party. Are they listening to you when you say that?

Marty: Well, who knows? Probably not, but it needs to be said. And it needs to be reinforced. So if you come back later and someone is starting to go a little bit off the rails, you can always say, “Hey, come on. We’ve spoken about this. You just need to be a bit more professional. We just need to be a little bit more careful of how you’re saying things to this person.” I think there’s always a space for that for anyone who’s in that room, whether it’s a senior leader or not.

What is an appropriate environment or venue for the Christmas party?

Marty: It’s pretty contextual. This one, if you work in a city centre, there’s no shortage of suitable venues. So you’ve got restaurants, cafes, function centres – they’re all good options. But one rule of thumb is that if alcohol is involved in any way, make sure there’s plenty of blotting paper.

Em: For those who don’t know what blotting paper is, it’s the food that you eat while you’re drinking so that it doesn’t all go to your head.

Marty: If you’re working in a remote location, for example, or if your team predominantly does shift work, or let’s say you’re a frontline customer service job, you may have to think about things differently. Where can you go to cater for everyone? Do you hold it on the work site itself? I know a lot of companies or divisions that have barbecue lunches for their staff onsite. But, if you work on an alcohol free site, as many people do, you have to think about the pros and cons of bringing alcohol onto the site for the occasion.

I once had a Head of Safety who chided me because one of our suppliers had sent me a Christmas hamper and it just happened to have a bottle of champagne in it. He saw that on my desk and he said, “You’ll have to remove that from the building because our policy says: no alcohol on the site.” Now this was just a city office, right? What went through my head was “Gee, mate. Good to see you going after the big issues. It’s not like we’ve got people working in hazardous conditions right across the company or anything.” But what actually came out of my mouth was, “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ll take it down to my car right away.”

Now I learned something from that interaction as well. This guy’s lens that he looked through was the rules and compliance lens, not the value lens, sort of interesting. But if you’re in a senior enough position, feel free to make those choices if they make sense.

Em: Yeah, totally. Obviously he was just doing what he felt was the right thing for the company and for the employees as well. So that is a really good point.

What do you do for fun when the company or part of the company has a no alcohol policy? 

Em: Not drinking is, I don’t want to say it’s on trend now – but I know a lot of people who don’t drink anymore. You know, maybe Christmas parties aren’t all about alcohol these days. What are you thinking?

Marty: That’s right. So we’ve got the alcohol policy thing right now, you know? Yes, you’re right. There’s a trend away from it. I think people are learning to drink more sensibly. We’ve seen a bunch of CEOs and senior Executives lose their jobs and have their careers severely disrupted by doing dodgy things in the wrong circumstances, under the influence of alcohol. So yes, it’s a cautionary tale for everyone. I think we’re becoming much more aware of that. But like I said, if you’re senior enough to make an exception and it makes sense, well, don’t be afraid to do it. You can make an exception to the policy for a day and say today, we’re actually going to do it this way. Then as of the time the party finishes, which we can put our own constraints around, we’re back to the normal policy. And that’s fine. I don’t see any problem with that at all.

Party animal or party pooper? get the balance right

Should you monitor and control, or should you just trust people to behave themselves?

Marty: That’s a really good question. You trust people until they show they can’t be trusted, normally. I think this is no different, but you don’t want to be policing the party. That’s no fun for anyone. You don’t want people to feel as though they’re being scrutinised. You’ve got to give them the latitude to actually make their own decisions and be adult. What I would often do is lean on a few of the opinion leaders, who I knew were going to be at the party for the duration and ask them to keep an eye on things. You know, look after people if they started to get a little too exuberant, perhaps get someone into a cab if they looked like they needed to go home. You want the reliable people to just be a little proactive in the space so that things don’t degenerate into a situation where someone can be hurt.

Em: You wouldn’t stay for the duration yourself then?

Marty: No, no way. My days of watching the sunrise from my barstool are well behind me, thank goodness. Especially as CEO, I go to the party at the start, perhaps make a quick speech, get around and talk to people and thank them for their efforts. Have a couple of social drinks and then get a cab home nice and early. I’d be home for dinner, if not before. Everyone likes the boss to turn up and to show their support and gratitude. But no one wants the boss hanging around later in the day when they want to let their hair down a little. So actually I’d say to most senior leaders make sure you’re there for the formalities, but make sure you’re not there at the end of the party.

Should leaders dress up in costumes if there is a fancy dress theme for a Christmas Party?

Marty: You know me, I don’t do dress ups – in the US they don’t call it dress up. They call it costume parties. Whenever I think of senior people dressing up, I picture Boris Johnson, the British PM. His willingness to put props on and engage in hi-jinks for the media’s benefit, left him with an air of buffoonery. It’s hard to take him seriously when he gets up in Parliament to talk about the economy with the image of him stuck in a harness on a zip line, above the river Thames, in a suit with an ill-fitting helmet, waving a Union Jack in each hand.

Em: What a visual! I guess  you’re right, but it doesn’t have to be like that. Or if you don’t dress up on your party pooper – is there a middle ground here that we can reach?

Marty: Yeah, sure. There’s a middle ground. And, you know, as you go through your career and progress through the levels, you become less and less a part of the broader group and more part of the senior leadership team. This isn’t an elitist thing – it’s just recognition of the friendly, not friends principle.

As a frontline leader, you might decide with your team to dress up to a theme, and this is great bonding. It helps you identify with a group that you lead, but as you go higher up and you have more professional distance from the front line, you tend to think about these things a little differently, or at least I did. So for me, although I love dressing up (which is like putting on a tux for a black tie dinner), I’ve never been into fancy dress or costume parties. You know, I, I always imagine Toga parties, Beetlejuice suits with makeup – they’ve never been my thing. So, I was pretty happy to go to the stage where I could just come as I am and be comfortable with that. If that makes me a party pooper, then yep! I’m definitely a party pooper.

Em: That’s a really good point. The respect before popularity thing, just being comfortable to say no, and to not feel pressured into it, if you feel as though that’s the right thing to do for you as the leader.


How can you manage resentment from frontline staff who have to work over the holiday season when head office gets to have time off?

Em: Now, when I worked in retail and bars in my younger years, I didn’t really think about it that much, because I was just working casually. But I can imagine that if I was, say, a retail store manager and I had to work those extended hours and not have that time with my family – I’d probably be a little bit bitter. Someone has to stay to keep the business running, so I get it. But any thoughts on how you can potentially manage this?

Marty: Yeah, it’s a little bit tricky, isn’t it? I think in these circumstances, people realise that their job requires commitment to customer service opening hours. As a young lad in my teens and early twenties, when I was working in bars and nightclubs, I don’t think I had a Saturday night off for many years, and I certainly didn’t celebrate New Year’s Eve properly until my mid twenties.

Sometimes it can be a bit shitty when everyone else is out at the party, but like everything else in life, it’s a choice. It comes with the territory and certain jobs. I think you accept that going into the job. Having said that, as a leader, it’s important that you recognise that a sacrifice is being made by your people. I’d say personally, thank them for giving up Christmas with their families, or New Year’s Eve with their friends, or the staff Christmas party that everyone else is attending. All you need to do is say, “Hey, look, I realise that you’re foregoing this and I really appreciate it.” And if you can do something for them, that marks a little celebration, then by all means do it.

Em: I love that. I thought that was just such a great question because it was an angle that I hadn’t thought of before, but that must be pretty difficult. I guess it’s just brunt of play, and it’s the choice of work that you do.

Alright, Marty, I think we’ve covered Christmas parties pretty well.



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