Christmas parties: The big let-down

Christmas is here again and the IT world is still in existence. You might think that is reason enough to celebrate, yet many...

Christmas is here again and the IT world is still in existence. You might think that is reason enough to celebrate, yet many companies are abandoning seasonal festivities - which might please accountants, but not hard-working staff

A Christmas party is a marvellous opportunity to mark another year in business and a good way of checking who is still around, getting managers and workers together to swap stories and count each other's wounds. So the Christmas party is not just an annual event, it is a way of allowing people who have worked hard all year to enjoy themselves.

But employers have started to use a long-standing Inland Revenue statute limiting tax-free spending per head on Christmas parties to £75. That might seem a lot, but it covers transport and accommodation as well as the cost of the party itself.

Worse, accountants seem to be using this statute to clamp down on staff having a ball. "It's always been there, but people have ignored it. It seems that this year, companies are using it as an excuse to not spend as much on parties. They have to be seen to be not spending that much," says Rachel Ollis, director of Mask Entertainment.

Companies are therefore having to choose between a mince pie around the photocopier - which is the deadbeat option - and a cabaret with fire-eaters, magicians and live bands, which is more like it, even with further fire brigade strikes likely.

Most vendors are choosing to postpone or cancel parties. Even Vodafone, which has had a relatively successful year, is putting off celebrations until the spring. Sun Microsystems' response to the question of whether it is having a Christmas party this year is all too typical. "IT is not an industry that should be having lavish parties," says a spokesman. Cisco isn't having one, Microsoft is and IBM had no comment. This is all a far cry from the days of the IT boom when companies were vying with each other to see how imaginative they could be in rewarding their staff. They were flying them off to Lapland to party in Santa's homeland and taking them on expenses paid trips to exotic beach locations to sip pina coladas on the sand.

It is clear that a year of the 'war on terrorism' and the recession have given the IT world a mauling. Not only is the industry having to deal with a downturn, but the threat of terrorism after the Bali bombing makes exotic locations look suspect, whether the cash is there or not.

And donning a grass skirt on a cold December evening to sashay around the boardroom, drinking warm white wine from a paper cup, doesn't have the same atmosphere.

Ding-dong merrily on high
Happily, for every example of a chilly reception for Christmas parties, there is a cheerful one. AOL UK is acclaiming its two millionth customer by rewarding its 400 staff with a Bollywood experience. The party will be held at a huge venue in London's Shepherds Bush and is organised through entertainment company Peters and Beach. Staff can dress how they want to, but are being encouraged to enter into the spirit of the liveliness, freshness, colour and joy of Bollywood.

"Members of staff have offered to give us some lessons in Indian dancing," reveals head of corporate events Rachel O'Neill. She is determined to not let the £75 Inland Revenue limit deter her from appreciating the achievements of her staff.

"We're providing the extra money," she says. And it is that enthusiastic investment of goodwill in the hard work of staff that deserves applause.

Meanwhile, BT, which has launched its broadband service to widespread acclaim, is spending £10 a head over the limit on its Christmas party for 105,000 employees. This is a way of showing staff that they belong to a company that has not only survived difficult times, but is confident of going places in future.

Fujitsu Services is staging a number of different types of celebration for its 9,000 staff. This time last year, it embarked on a round of redundancies, so this year, the company is determined to show the world it is still here.

"Everyone in the company will go to at least one party at some point over Christmas," says a spokesman.

He adds that the company is optimistic about the new year following recent restructuring: "We are looking forward as opposed to looking back."

Don't overdo it
Of course, companies can be too enthusiastic about entertainment and IT employees like to do their own thing without being told how to do it. Take, for example, a recent story on the Internet about a young IT employee who fell out with his female manager after she threatened to make his life hell if he didn't become a sumo wrestler for a party. It was made clear to him that he wasn't a team player if he didn't do as he was told. He left the company.

Managers have power over employees and sometimes, at events like a Christmas party, they can abuse that power - especially in the current climate, where so many people are losing their jobs.

At least look happy
2003 will be a defining year for the IT industry. It will provide the opportunity for the market to demonstrate that it can put the recession behind it and move on. But although IT normally prides itself on individuality and a carefree approach to life, it will struggle to maintain this attitude against a backdrop of corporate failure, especially in the US. Undoubtedly, everyone prefers to work in a creative, imaginative and go-getting atmosphere. Yet it is also fair to say people don't want carefree, imaginative accountants - it is their job to agonise over the figures.

After a year that has seen the collapse of companies such as Enron and WorldCom, accountants in grey suits are becoming more visible after staying in the background for so long. Peoplesoft recently made its attitude clear about the way in which it wants to be viewed at its Christmas party. Its invitation read "no suits".

IT has traditionally been divided between accountants' suits and the more laid-back style of the T-shirts and chinos of developers who wouldn't be seen dead in a shirt and tie. But this is not necessarily a good thing for every business - the working environment improves when everyone gets on together.

Just because CEOs and accountants at operations such as Enron and WorldCom have caused a crisis of confidence in the business world, other companies have no need to cut back on the one event of the year where staff get a chance to kick back. Many accountants could justify restricting spending if their company is at death's door, but is that really the image a business wants to present to the world? A party would be a great force for renewal.

Near-death of a salesman
It has been a particularly hard year for IT sales. Managers were forced to find ever more creative ways of motivating staff. This proved to be too much for one sales manager.

Twenty-five-year-old David Pattison headed a ten-strong team and spent his days making sure staff were performing to the best of their ability. But he frequently lost his temper. One night, he felt a tightening across his chest that wouldn't go. He put up with it for a couple of days before admitting himself to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a heart attack. He couldn't believe it - quite apart from anything else, he was so young.

"I was in denial. I thought I would have the treatment, get out of hospital and go straight back to work," Pattison reveals.

Fortunately, he is still alive, but is having to rethink his whole lifestyle - which might mean a move out of management.

Pat on the back
This has serious implications for the IT world. Pattison had a problem with anger, but the stress of his job did not help. It is a world where playing hard and getting results in difficult circumstances need recognition. Reward and praise measured in tangible bonuses are everything. Employees who have performed well have a chance to show this off at their Christmas party.

In 2003, there is a chance for everyone to work together to drive the industry out of recession - and what better place to start than a huge Christmas party? Staff have worked hard this year. Some, like Pattison, have put their lives on the line. They deserve to be rewarded at the end of a punishing year.

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