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The punishers and straighteners who are squeezing the life out of Christmas

Opinion

Staff Christmas parties used to celebrate the best and worst of the human condition, but most people had fun. Then the human resources department got involved, writes Michael Blucher.

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Another question without warning from the “dinosaur den” – when was it exactly, that office Christmas become the sole domain of officious, stick-in- the-mud HR types?

As I shuffle with increasingly weary legs towards the year’s finish line, I’ve found myself awash with stories of legislative mumbo jumbo, that are eating away at the very spirit of Yuletide.

We wanted to do this, but we couldn’t because there was alcohol involved. We were going to have a fancy dress theme, but the risk was that somebody would take it too far, and turn up in something culturally or religiously inappropriate. Or that people wouldn’t have time to shop for a costume, and through that, feel left out.

And my favourite – the staff Christmas function that had to be held during working hours otherwise it would be unfair to those employees with “out of hours commitments”. Out of hours commitments? You mean like “life”?

I felt compelled to ask my employment lawyer mate Pete about that one, but after he confirmed it was a genuine modern day consideration, I found myself drifting off, not listening to a word he said. Something about “unlawful indirect workplace discrimination”.

Of course. the old “UIWD clause”. Act 4, Section 2, Paragraph 9. “Those unable to find a baby sitter on a Thursday evening in December will be entitled to kick up a stink and ruin it for 240 others”. Or words to that effect.

Yes, 2021 – it’s tricky isn’t it? There are certainly lots of buzz words being bandied about – cultural misappropriation, risk mitigation, management acquiescence, thrown into sentences with the traditional staples – terms, conditions, responsibilities, requirements, obligations. Pete conceded he was struggling to keep up, all while lamenting the disappearance of the “sensible centre”.

We’re going well, aren’t we? Wonder where’s it going it finish up…

Christmas functions, once free spirited occasions which afforded people the opportunity to let their hair down and yuk it up for the afternoon, or evening, or both, have become an unnavigable minefield of rules and regulations.

In the process or trying to make them safe and fair and inoffensive for everybody, we’ve removed the essence of what they’re all about. The celebration of a long year’s work with people with whom you often spend more time than you do with your family.

At the risk of offending officious HR and WPHS types (who we need to acknowledge are only following stupid rules set by people completely removed from the real world) I’m hankering for a return to the good old days – when people had choices.

If they wanted to drink three times their body weight in alcohol, and goose themselves in front of their colleagues, they were free to do so. As long as they abided by one simple rule – “as much fun as you like, at nobody else’s expense”.

There was nothing better than seeing the lady in accounts payable, who’s said perhaps 35 words total in the year, up on stage, champagne glass in hand, singing “She wears red knickers and a hula-hula skirt…. toola-toola-loo, toola-toola-loo”.

Or the office IT geek, huddled in the corner, telling his two male colleagues how he really feel – Na…na..na – you don’t-under-sthand, I lluuuuvve you”….

These were the great occasions that galvanised us, that made people more relatable, that’s stripped the robots down and made them human. These moments of human fallibility – vulnerability – weren’t frowned up or filmed, they were just… moments. Fun.

I remember one year while I was working for the brewery, one young bloke woke up on top of a bus shelter. No idea how he got there, or who helped him up, but did report the following week that he got an excellent night’s sleep.

Now was that dangerous? Could it have ended badly? Yes and yes. But it wouldn’t have been his company’s fault for not providing a safe environment in which to celebrate. For serving excessive amounts of alcohol. For not specifying the expected standards of behaviour, to guarantee his colleagues were not offended or felt threatened by his actions, while in an inebriated state. It was just a choice he’d made.

To get trolleyed.

Alcohol and safety are two notions that are never going to be cosy bed fellows, regardless of whether we’re in week one or week 51 of the year.

Try as we might might, we’re never going to be able to legislate against stupidity. For every rule that’s imposed, there’ll always be a bigger and better idiot, somebody who’ll blow the fuse and circumnavigate the system.

But organisations, begin swept along by the torrent of intolerance, are doing their level best. According to Pete, nowhere more so than in Australia.

My mate Rob reminded me recently of his time in Mexico, where the Christmas party he was attended offered employees the opportunity to get into a ring with real, live bulls. Bullfighting and tequila – what could possibly go wrong?

By way of comparison, out at Eagle Farm this month, there was a senior executive heavily chastised by his WPHS officer for having a bottle of champagne in his office – part of Christmas hamper he’d received as a gift. It needed to be REMOVED IMMEDIATELY. No such acton required on the tomato relish that he knew to be dangerously spicy. He receives the same hamper every year. It’s never been an issue, but in 2021, it is.

There’s no longer any scope for common-sense or pragmatism. There’s just rules that need to be followed, standards that need to be abided by.

We’re safer, we’re fairer, we’re far more equitable. We’re acknowledging diversity at every corner, so notionally, we should all be better off. But we’re not going anywhere. We’re stuck. The fun police have got us cornered.

Once it was about choices, and personal responsibility, about wearing the consequences of your own actions. As Pete says, “the sensible centre”. Now, that’s shrunk to the point where it’s completely disappeared.

And even Pete, the lawyer, the upholder of what is fair and reasonable, it struggling to keep up. What chance the rest of us?

My Christmas highlight to date has been the short handwritten note I received this week when buying a copy of the Big Issue. It had been personally penned by the vendor.

“Dear valued Customer. Thank you very much for buying the Big Issue magazine. You and Gamblers Anonymous and God are helping me recover from a gambling addiction. I haven’t placed a bet for over 8 years. Merry Christmas. Regards Michael.

I couldn’t help but wonder what Michael would think about the concept of Unlawful Indirect Workplace Discrimination.

I’m guessing he hasn’t given it a lot of thought.

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