There are a number of wonderfully inevitable things that that happen at this time of year; from our road network’s baffling inability to deal with the first flurries of snow to the scramble to get hold of this year’s ‘must have’ gifts before the shelves empty.
Nestled in amongst these is the annual anxiety of things “kicking off” at the Xmas Party. It’s not unusual to end up dealing with the fallout and having that cast a shadow over the run up to the holidays, especially as 1 in 10 employees admit to having embarrassed themselves at a Xmas do at one time or another.
People making a fool of themselves is one thing, but what about situations that “get out of hand” where one too many drinks means someone says or does something that lights the blue touch-paper? In practical terms you’ve got your grievance and disciplinary policies as your framework for managing the issues and, if you want to be proactive, there’s no end of tips and hints on how to avoid such flashpoints – but is that enough?
If certain relationships are so precariously poised that people can’t hold it together once the party starts and guards start to slip – then what’s happened earlier the year? How much time and effort has been squandered through low-level snipes, digs, back-biting, undermining and blocking… it’s just that things didn’t ever fully explode – until now!
Most of us can think of someone who’s got themselves into this kind of situation and it was a bit of a shock and surprise – it was “really out of character”. So yes, these situations can be a one-off that flared from little or nothing… but, for the most part, when there’s been “an incident” and “things kicked-off”, you’ve usually got a pretty good idea who’ll be involved. Some of your likely suspects will be those “feisty characters” that you’ve long sensed you’d have to deal with at some point – the others will typically be those wrestling with workplace relationships that, for one reason or another, have gone toxic.
We can’t all get on with everyone we have to work with – life just isn’t like that, but working with people you don’t particularly like or get on with and having a working relationship that’s so bad things boil over on a night out, are two very different things. So the question is, what can we do about it?
Instead of planning these things in early December why not lay the foundations throughout the year? Easy to say harder to do as challenging difficult behaviours is never straight forward and addressing simmering workplace conflict is something many managers feel ill-equipped to do – after all it’s only natural to convince yourself “it’s not so bad” rather than opening Pandora’s Box.
ACAS’ latest research suggests employers may well be colluding with this tolerance of conflict as the majority are utterly convinced “conflict is rare in their organisation”. But digging a bit deeper suggests that it’s only when ‘hostilities breakout’ that organisations consider incidents to be “workplace conflict”.
So to take our Xmas Party analogy – if there’s been snipes, digs, back-biting, undermining and blocking behaviour throughout the year and nothing kicks off – then there’s “nothing to see here” on a conflict front. However, if it all gets a bit leery – and HR get involved then it counts.
Let’s not kid ourselves, whether it kicks off or not, the damage is being done.
Think about the impact of those relationships that haven’t yet flared up and spilled over? What about all those managers who are expected to “have a quiet word” and manage these situations through informal chats? How many HRBPs spend their time helping their managers navigate through the awkward and tricky few, instead of concentrating on core operational needs? How many final cuts of a reorganisation have been about moving the deckchairs so that X isn’t working with Y?
Maybe next year could be the year to change our perspective and challenge ourselves on how much of this low-level stuff we are actually putting up with (and therefore inadvertently condoning?)
If we do, then maybe this December will be less about reminding people to “keep a lid on it” before dusting off the grievance and disciplinary procedures and clearing the diary to manage the fall-out. Instead we could throw ourselves wholeheartedly into making the office Xmas Party the fun, engaging, team-building “thank you” that it was always intended to be.
ACAS Research Infographic
ACAS Research Infographic Commentary