Christmas decorations are going up in the office. The staff party is on everyone’s calendar, in anticipation of revelry and revelations. It offers an evening to let your hair down and end the year on a high.
But with myriad cultural sensitivities and MeToo hysteria, has the Christmas party become a minefield of perceived offence or harassment, and potential disciplinary action?
Cultural diversity is regarded as a plus in the workplace, but a natural tendency for people to work together harmoniously has been stifled by institutional policy and ‘values.’
My friend Sheila (not her real name) began working for a government agency ten years ago, in a featureless block in a humdrum overgrown market town in the East Midlands. For family reasons she upped sticks, having secured a transfer to the agency’s offices on the outskirts of London.
Workers are not primarily motivated by self-interest but by membership of a cooperative community.
In many ways, nothing much changed: a similarly bland building, open-plan office and bureaucratic regime. But Sheila observed some significant differences between her old and new teams.
The Midlands staff was socially cohesive: mostly local women of near horizons, who relieved the monotony of the working week by sharing their private lives with colleagues and engaging in gossip.
In London, the office is more colourful, with a smorgasbord of ethnicities, and rainbow lanyards are prominent. No subgroup is dominant. Demographic trends indicate that Sheila’s present office is the future, and her erstwhile domain the past.
Yet for Sheila, something seemed to be missing. When you start a job, you wonder how they do things around here, how friendly are colleagues, and how to ease your initiation. In London, Sheila found that nobody took much interest in her life and why she had moved. There was less conviviality, but no obvious cliques of whom a newcomer should be wary. People seemed more individualistic, spending more time on their mobile phones than conversing over the desk partitions.
By the end of her first week, Sheila had heard little gossip beyond a few indicative one-liners and raised eyebrows. And no jokes. She erred on her first day, making an off-the-cuff comment in the kitchen about skimmed milk (it was full fat in the Midlands), apparently offending a vegan lady.
In London, workers were there for the salary and not much else. In the Midlands, the work often seemed secondary to social intercourse. The Christmas party was a highlight in her previous office but a low-key formality in the loosely tied London office.
Occupational psychologists tell us that alongside the official structure, an unofficial social hierarchy exists in the workplace. Classic organisation theory regarded organisations as rational, rule-governed systems, but the human relations school in Chicago challenged the bureaucratic order of Max Weber and FW Taylor’s mechanistic view of employees as mere tools on the production line.
In experiments at the Hawthorne factory of the Western Electric Company, whatever modification to working conditions was tested, productivity improved. This result of being observed became known as the ‘Hawthorne effect.’ More importantly, the investigators found that workers are not primarily motivated by self-interest but by membership of a cooperative community.
Overbearingly striving for inclusivity, managers have contributed to defensiveness and alienation.
Social norms are culturally produced rules we learn and accept through compliance and internalisation, but organisations have tried to manipulate the staff culture. Overbearingly striving for inclusivity, managers have contributed to defensiveness and alienation.
The irony of ‘celebrating diversity’ is the dearth of celebration in the modern office. Younger employees are more tuned to the evolving environment, having been schooled in progressive ideology, and they know what not to say. Unlike the older mums in the Midlands, they display a joylessness ill befitting of youth. As in the song ‘Goody Two Shoes’ by Adam and the Ants, these millennials ought to get out more: ‘You don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?’
In a puritanical atmosphere it is made clear that wrong-speak will not be tolerated, whether that means shunning you or a complaint to management. Consequently workers avoid banter and hold their tongue, uncertain of the rules by which they might fall foul. An allegation of racism, however spurious, is mud that sticks.
A mix of staff can work very well: the NHS has been culturally diverse for longer than most of us can remember. Generally, workplaces should be representative of society, and so diversity is the new normal. But if talk and humour are stifled by identity politics and excessive cultural sensitivities, workers resort to a lowest common denominator in how they behave and interact.
A heterogeneous office needs some slack. Uncertainty and fear of causing offence detract from staff morale, potentially leading to stress, sickness, staff turnover and poorer productivity. So here’s a message to senior management and human resources departments: let your resources be human. If we lose the Christmas party, we lose the whole year.
(Dr Niall McCrae is a lecturer in mental health, and a writer on social and political affairs. He regularly contributes to The Salisbury Review and Bruges Group website, and has written two books: The Moon and Madness, and Echoes from the Corridors: The Story of Nursing in British Mental Hospitals)