Agony Lance: Mucho merriness, comical issues and crazy in the wings

Lance Wiggs tackles your tricky business problems.

Way too merry

Our office Christmas party is coming up. Every year the staff drink too much and inevitably someone does something embarrassing; it usually culminates in a resignation early in the new year. I love my staff and don't want any of them to leave. How can I subtly communicate to my employees that I'd like them to have a good time, but photocopying their butt and rumpy-pumpy in the meeting rooms really just isn't on? Conservative, Dunedin

Where the heck do you work that still has parties like that? And can you invite me to the next one? Although I’d probably just sit in an office chatting to one of the designers.

Seriously though, this sort of behaviour belongs in the 60s and 70s, and with a global recession on the staff would do well to remember that not everyone has a job to go to in the new year.

As you suggest perhaps it’s time to change things up, by why not change the event itself, getting away from the boozy traditions. Why not make the Christmas party into an event of a different nature, and take the team out into nature itself? They could have fun riding horses in Makara, shooting clay pigeons and throwing axes in the Waitakeres, or racing each other at a go-karting venue. Each of these allows you to more easily control drinking, with a no-drinking, no participation rule keeping the karters, riders and axe throwers sober.

If you must have a party then keep it short, provide plenty of food and juice and servce responsibly. Close the doors after two to three hours and send everyone out into the streets, so that the hard-core drinkers can wobble off to the pubs and clubs, while the sodden casual partiers who should rather be at home with their husbands and wives can migrate home.

Leaders of the organisation should take stock as well, and make sure that they are demonstrating through their own actions that while there is fun to be had, wanton drunkenness and debauchery is never appropriate in a work setting. Meanwhile you might consider a quiet word to the heaviest drinkers and opinion leaders (often the same people) to highlight your concerns. They should take responsibility for a successful event, and know that you are looking to them for leadership.

But take another look in the mirror. Are you getting old? Jaded? Is your tolerance for good times turning into ancient fuddy duddyism? Are you becoming your parents or theirs, even?

Parties tend to magnify everyone’s feelings, unearthing the core emotions about life and work, good and bad. It’s a chance to hear the unvarnished truth about the work environment, and for relationships to form and to end. It’s arguably an effective safety valve to let tough conversations happen early, and if you keep your wits about it can be a fantastic way to accelerate togetherness, to expose the good, bad and ugly within the organisation. So long as that exposure isn’t on the photocopier. 

Not so comical

My workplace is doing a group Christmas card. Two problems - one is that they want us to be in a photo all wearing Santa hats and silly costumes, and I'm not keen, and the other is that the design uses Comic Sans font inside. Most of my clients are design and ad agencies and sending out a Comic Sans card to them is akin to professional suicide. The boss wants me to use the official card though, and will know if I don't ... what to do? Designer, Auckland

It sounds like your boss might as well ask his seven-year-old daughter to do the card for you. There are two approaches to take with this oh so entertaining puzzle, passive aggressive or assertive, with the passive aggressive approach being a lot more fun and destructive.

As a first step in the passive aggressive approach, make sure he has seen the website, which I note is getting increasingly professional and even has a documentary lined up. Send the link to the team via a third party, paste a screenshot on the wall or invite the team to contribute funds to the documentary.

If that doesn’t work, and it probably won’t, then ask someone’s seven-year-old daughter to design another card, tidy it up a little and send it around the team, without suggesting that it is used. Prod someone else to suggest that it is used, and build support from the entire team. It could be a terrible card, but at least it isn’t the corporate stupidity.

If that still doesn’t work then ramp up your activity. Try deleting every copy of the card template you can find, removing the Comic Sans typeface from everyone’s computers (pointing it to something else) and deleting every picture of the team you can find, and make sure nobody has a camera or time for a group shot. Alternatively go the other way, and create an A1 version and festively place it on the wall next to the boss’s office. Make sure the photos are appropriately unattractive, especially that of the boss.

The right way to is a lot less fun, but may actually have a chance of success and job retention. Try having a quiet fact-based chat with the boss in a non-threatening setting so he doesn’t have to look bad. Let him come up with an alternative answer that keeps everyone happen, and announce that it was his idea.

Alternatively just go ahead and create a better card with your design team and make sure everyone likes it well enough. Test it, alongside the comic sans monstrosity and say one other, casually with clients, in front of the boss at the end of a client meeting. You can prime the friendlier customers to overreact, though it sounds like you will not have to.

If the boss is still insistent, then try to delve into the root cause of the problem. Is the card mandated from the top of a very large organisation, and are you just a small part? Is the card actually not that bad and he has decided to run with it rather than rock the political boat? Is he trying to win another, larger, battle that this could disrupt? Or perhaps he really has no clue about design, and this was done by his daughter and he think it is neat? Sometimes there is no way to win.

There are some workplace actions by organisations that are frustrating, but we can get over them and move on. Others are so outrageously stupid, soul and value destroying that they leave you no other option than to exit. Much as this is fun, it’s better to chill out, hand the cards out to clients with a rolling of the eyes, an explanation, a nice bottle of plonk and a laugh than to get too worked up about a bloody Christmas card. Bah humbug.

Crazy in the wings

I've built up a huge amount of leave owing and I want to take three weeks to a month off at Christmas, as it coincides with a less busy period for work (for once). Only issue is, my 2IC is a megalomaniac nutcase who wants my job - any advice for taking the time off without being a victim of mutiny on the Bounty? Strung out, Auckland

It sounds like you are letting your nutcase employee control your personal life, which really isn’t a pleasant situation to be in. I’d be taking some deep breaths over your break and pondering exactly what is important to you, your family and your career.

Let’s start with that nutcase 2IC. If the person really is a nutcase then for everyone’s sake change that situation as soon as you can by following an informal then formal feedback approach. Isolate exactly what behaviour is disturbing, point it out to him in a methodical manner, show the effect on everybody else, and then work with him to change it. The sooner you have this conversation and the follow-up the better, and make sure it is well before your leave starts. If the process means that he is ultimately fired, then hurry up and start it, but it’s a very rare case that someone doesn’t want to do better.

Next up, look in the mirror and ask yourself who the megalomaniac actually is. By not allowing this 2IC to expand his wings are you showing signs of being a control freak, while he in turn is showing frustration? 

Ultimately we should all try to find someone to replace us so that we can move ever onward and upward. Isn’t your primary responsibility to him to help him grow, and wouldn’t your live be easier if you gave him as much of your tasks as possible?

And that’s a good strategy for the break. Drown him in work, assign him all of your business as usual along with one or two important projects. But give him a chance to really shine in your absence, making sure that he also understands he can’t do this at the expense of staff morale. Let him know that he has a chance to change his career trajectory, and that you’ll assess his progress by both results and his personal impact on the team and clients. If it turns out he was superb then that’s a win for everyone, and you can start looking to expand your own sphere or work while delegating more to him.

Nothing is more important than time away from work, as it not only allows time with the family and friends, but also space to think about the really important things in life. We all owe it to ourselves in that case to have a very merry Christmas and a fantastic break, so let’s head for the beach and take the necessary time out. Except you poor sods stuck in the office that is.

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