How To Skirt The Danger Zones At Your End-Of-Year Party

Looking forward to letting your hair down at the annual office party? That’s understandable. You deserve a chance to unwind, relax and have fun with colleagues. But be warned: letting your hair down can degenerate into letting yourself down.

In worst-case scenarios the end-of-year party can become the end-of-career party. Festive gaffes can turn upward progression into regression while missteps by those already in leadership positions can compromise credibility and authority.

Performance appraisals apply to office parties, too. That’s not official, of course, but be aware that scrutiny is not restricted to formal HR processes. Subjective social assessments are made and can either be damning or career-enhancing.

Just like an annual performance review, an annual party is an opportunity to impress. For senior personnel, it’s a chance to set an example. For up-and-coming talent, it’s an indicator that you have what it takes to reach the next level.

You can still have fun, but the following danger zones are best avoided…

ALCOHOL: The ability to hold your drink is vital at corporate social occasions. Often this means just that … holding the glass and taking the occasional sip rather than drinking to excess. Take it easy and make sure a designated driver is on hand to take you home. An arrest for drunken driving can arrest the development of your career and could be a nail in your career coffin.

BEHAVIOUR: Be friendly and cordial. Greet everyone; those in lower staff grades as well as immediate colleagues and superiors. Being an executive snob is outdated and emotionally un-intelligent. A good supply of free eats may be on hand, but don’t gorge yourself. Don’t help yourself to an extra bottle (or two) to drink on the way home. This is tantamount to petty theft and a sign you can’t be trusted.

Creating a total mess (littering) at the party reflects badly not only on your personal standards, but is indicative of a messy attitude towards your office environment.

Don’t ‘get carried away’. Kicking off shoes or shedding clothes can best be left to royalty. Prince Harry can’t be sacked from the British royal family for what the newspapers called “a naked romp”, but corporates rarely have hereditary middle and senior management positions. Harry Windsor’s job is safe for life; yours might not be.

DRESS: Relaxed or flamboyant attire may be permissible but don’t go overboard. Women should avoid revealing tops and short skirts. A ‘flash’ from Madonna does no harm to her pop career, but what about yours?

FLIRTING: A little flirting may seem like harmless fun, but can get out of hand. A show of affection for a boss or a personal assistant can be misinterpreted. It will raise eyebrows if colleagues of the opposite sex leave together. Don’t put yourself in a position where your actions and motives can be misconstrued.

In the contemporary corporate world, we are all responsible for managing our ‘personal brand’. Be careful what brand attributes are associated with you and your reputation.

LANGUAGE: Watch your language. Formalities may have eased, but this does not mean risqué jokes are in order. Even though you may have been encouraged to use first names, don’t fall into the trap of being overly familiar.

A man might be tempted to show he is ‘one of the boys’ and a woman may want to show she is not a prude, but a sense of balance is required.

SOCIAL MEDIA: The paparazzi have been invited to your party. That’s not an official invitation, but these days every one of your colleagues comes to the office festivities equipped with a cellphone … which means they all carry cameras.

Unguarded moments can easily be captured. They seem like harmless fun at the time. Unfortunately, it is not so harmless when junior colleagues share the pictures with everyone at the office or the photos end up on Facebook.

Some prudent companies have quietly developed social media policies. They are mindful of the risk to their reputation if embarrassing photos of corporate events are published on line. Extra vigilance is needed at party season.

Individuals should also exercise care. Prospective employers check social media sites. In effect, pictures of your most embarrassing moments can go on your curriculum vitae, due to diligent reference checking pre-employment offer – the offer may never be made.

These early alerts are not meant to spoil the party. There is no need to be a killjoy. You can enjoy yourself and still enhance your company image.

Remember, there is always a morning after the night before. Make sure in the cold light of day you can look back and say ‘I had a good time and did my career some good at the same time’.

Auguste (Gusti) Coetzer is a founding director of and shareholder in Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.

Gender Correctness… The Taboo Executives Don’t Even Discuss

Women are finally beginning to enter that previously male preserve, the senior executive suite, and a good thing, too. How do men – and women – adapt to this situation? Regrettably, there is little discussion of this topic.

There should be because some unforeseen consequences are becoming apparent as the skirts join the suits in the upper echelons of business.

The behaviour of some men is changing. They are becoming defensive, and evasive. Apparently, they don’t so much fear female competition as the female ‘predator’.

As a result, they are adopting some American practices that seem bizarre until they are put into the context of that big corporate growth area – the sexual harassment suit.

We should be seeing gender sensitivity. We see gender correctness instead.

For example, ‘correct’ behaviour for the executive male is to wait for the next lift when he sees that the lift he was about to enter is occupied by a lone woman.

Going into a lift with a single woman occupant could be injudicious. If the woman complains something improper happened, considerable reputational damage may ensue, even if the charge is baseless.

Similarly, if a woman colleague wishes to see a male colleague in his office, one on one, the ‘correct’ male behaviour is to make sure the office door stays open.

I am told sexual harassment cases are backing up at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

Many complaints may well be valid, but judging by feedback from senior male executives there is growing suspicion that many are not and some women are becoming adept at obtaining a financial settlement on flimsy grounds.

I work with senior executives all the time. The men tell me the issue of false or exaggerated claims of sexual harassment is a genuine concern.

They not only worry about one-on-one scenarios, they are also careful about:

  • What they say if this might be interpreted as sexist or perpetuates stereotypes such as the dumb blonde or the scatter-brained, non-technical female
  • What jokes they tell if the joke might appear sexist or suggestive
  • What jokes they laugh at if a laugh might be regarded as an endorsement of a sexist viewpoint
  • Complimenting a woman, in case this is interpreted in the wrong way

In the US, a flood of sexual harassment cases was initially seen as positive. Women were cheered on talk shows for their bravery in coming forward.

Then doubts surfaced. Were all cases well founded? After all, some hefty financial settlements were made. Male executives went into defensive mode, resulting in ‘correct’ behaviour and an arm’s length attitude to women colleagues.

Then male employees began bringing sexual harassment suits against women managers. It’s hard to say how cohesive teamwork can be achieved in a toxic environment like this.

The dilemma has yet to reach these proportions in South Africa, but the potential is there.

Sexual harassment is a crime. False and flimsy claims are also abhorrent. Once the suspicion gains ground that women are making false claims it becomes that much harder for real victims to stand up and complain.

As more and more women enter what was once a male-dominated arena, it is important for organisations to ask what sort of culture they wish to create.

Equal opportunities must be offered. Women must be allowed every chance to advance. Men should be careful of the language they use and the attitudes they adopt. But women have responsibilities, too.

Dressing for the office in a revealing or provocative way is simply not appropriate. Women have to exercise discipline as well.

Bad tempered, bullying male bosses are bad enough, but now there are whispers that we are beginning to see the emergence of the bitchy boss – the female senior executive who behaves in an aggressive manner to male colleagues to distract attention from her own shortcomings.

Spouses and partners at home should also be involved in the gender sensitivity debate. After all, having drinks with the boss after work may mean that a mid-tier male executive will be socialising with a female superior or vice versa.

At the moment, the entry of women at senior management level seems to be leading to male defensiveness and gender correctness. Do we want this?

Will we over-correct into a situation where spontaneity is destroyed and there is no joy in the workplace?

Having an equal opportunity policy is wonderful; but it is also necessary to look at some other rules and office practices.

Should evening meetings be scheduled at all? Should there be a policy on socialising after work? Is gender sensitivity training necessary? Should this involve both men and women?

South Africans have made great strides on the issue of racial sensitivity. The next challenge is gender sensitivity. Unfortunately, few business leaders even talk about the issue. Perhaps it’s time they did.

Auguste (Gusti) Coetzer is a founding member, shareholder and director of Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development. 

No Longer Just Give and Take

Intuitively, you expect offers of executive jobs in major organisations to be snapped up in a tough economy. Yet an increasing number of well qualified candidates for highly paid posts are saying “Thanks, but no thanks” after scoring well in all assessments and sailing through.

Auguste (Gusti) Coetzer is a founding member, shareholder and director of Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.

Read More – City Press – 6 Nov