Blue lights and awkward gyrating: are office Christmas parties worth the embarrassment?

Simon Doherty

Simon Doherty makes a case for skipping your work’s festive celebration this year

12 December 2018 15:16

I’ll be honest here, I’m not too keen on office Christmas parties. I’ve never been a fan. Depending on where I’m working, they tend to go one of two ways. Either I get nervous and I need something to do with my hands – this ends up being drinking, so I end up consuming way too much. Or I don’t drink at all, in which case people look at me like I’ve just repeatedly punched a toddler in the face, breached Geneva conventions or created an elaborate misinformation campaign that duped millions of people into voting to leave the best union in the world.

If you choose not to drink at the office do, your colleagues will find your abstinence more or less socially acceptable depending on your reason for it. If it’s for a medical purpose, like being in recovery or on antibiotics, you’re in the clear. The same goes for religious beliefs. But just saying that you’re not drinking because you don’t fancy having a drink doesn’t fall in line with British norms and values. You may as well admit to having just embezzled half of the company’s cash and purchased yourself an opulent yacht in the Bahamas. Overall, it will be met with great disapproval.

My aversion to office Christmas parties is rooted in my fear of getting so drunk that my employment subsequently becomes untenable. When I have drank, I’ve always suffered acute hangxiety – an all-consuming sense of dread lingering over you, like when you think about an impending dentist appointment or the departure from a great trade agreement – when going into work for the next shift. I don’t know why this is, maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many other people humiliate themselves through this festive ritual.

I remember my first student job at a call centre. It was tedious work, which mainly consisted of cold calling people only to be swiftly told to fuck off. One day, an 18-year-old colleague called *Joe confided in me that he had never been to a pub or had a drink. Pretty astonished at the revelation that someone could reach legal drinking age without trying alcohol, I suggested that the upcoming Christmas party could be a good opportunity for him to do just that.

Joe and I rocked up to the party together. It was at a posh place in Leeds City Centre and I soon noticed that a mate of mine was working behind the bar. He offered us free shots all night. I took the first one and declined the rest, as I didn’t want to get blackout drunk. Despite my warnings of the obvious dangers of mixing large amounts of tequila and lager the first time he drank, Joe unfortunately took no such precaution.

After we had eaten, Joe took to the dancefloor and proceeded to gyrate his hips in a spectacular fashion. Then he took off his shirt before beginning to wave it above his head like the propellers of a helicopter. Shortly after, he tumbled to the ground, bare chested, like a badly felled tree. I tried to step in and help, but it all happened so fast. A bouncer – who, in an ironic and cruel twist, also knew Joe’s dad – gently escorted Joe from the building, at which point he realised that he had lost his phone and wallet. They couldn’t be found, so our manager had to call a taxi and give him £20 to get home.

The next day, Joe called the manager to tell him that he’d woken up in a rose bush outside his house and therefore couldn’t come in. He was promptly sacked. ‘I had no choice, he hadn’t passed his probation and didn’t even come up with an excuse for not coming in,’ the manager told me when I enquired about his departure from the company.

One of the worst incidents, though, happened when I worked for an advertising agency. There was this guy, let’s call him Terry, who got very drunk at the Christmas party. Sledge-hammer-in-the-face pissed. I didn’t drink and left at 18:00, but before that, I saw him with a 330ml can of IPA in each back pocket and a pint in his hand. He was approaching colleagues saying, ‘You down your drink and I’ll down mine.’ Nobody humoured him. ‘I’ll just down mine then,’ he retorted each time, before sinking it with all the zeal of a university rugby player desperately trying to impress his comrades. Suffice it to say, Terry was extremely inebriated by the time I left.

On account of my not drinking, I was one of the first people at work the following morning. ‘Did you hear what happened to Terry?’ someone from another team asked me. It was 10:05am and the gossip machine had already started whirring. It turned out that, after I’d left, the remaining employees had gone to another bar. That’s where he allegedly punched someone, got ejected by security staff, scuffled with responding police officers and was eventually arrested for a public order offence. Shortly after I’d been informed of all this, Terry himself strolled in.

‘You won’t believe what happened last night,’ he told me.

‘Go on,’ I replied.

‘I got arrested on the way home,’ he explained adding that he was released without charge. ‘I don’t remember much, but I remember the blue lights and then being in a cell.’

‘Erm, no, that was at the party.’

We soon found out that, whilst Terry was being detained by the police, one of our colleagues had filmed the spectacle on his phone and sent it to the Creative Director – such was his particular brand of ‘banter’. ‘I feel sick,’ was Terry’s parting statement before he was summonsed into a meeting, never to be seen again.

Joe called the manager to tell him that he'd woken up in a rose bush outside his house and therefore couldn’t come in. He was promptly sacked.

Keen to know if other people had experienced similar things at office parties, I asked anyone who was immediately available when writing this article to share their stories. Everyone had a horrific tale to tell. ‘I was working for this insurance company,’ the first person told me. ‘Before the Christmas do I had some people over to my flat and me and another manager convinced the new starters to get on the sniff.’ This was a mistake. ‘We talked up the company as being laid back, because we wanted them to buy a half-gram. They did, and we went to the party. They went to the toilet and the Managing Director was in there. They pulled out the wrap in front of him and offered him a key. We didn’t see them when work started again after Christmas.’

The second person’s story wasn’t much better, it seems that mixing drugs with office dos is a very bad idea. ‘At the Christmas party at my last work, there were just lines and lines and lines of coke,’ they told me. ‘I turned around to see my colleague, who is married, with his tonsils deep inside another girl’s mouth. He got with at least four other women too. I blacked out, so I don’t know what happened after.’

That person was apparently mortified when the company reconvened after the holidays, but not everyone is willing to try and style it out. ‘I worked in a call centre selling windows and doors,’ another girl confided. ‘At the Christmas do I shagged one of my colleagues (who I used to sit next to) in Mega Bowl’s disabled toilets. I quit the next day.’ Was the beer fear just too much to bear? ‘Yeah, I threw up right after it too,’ she said. ‘I still had my knickers round my ankles.’

Some of the tales were positively dark. ‘A former colleague got blackout drunk at a Christmas party,’ one person said. ‘While dancing with a manager he tried to perform a sex act on her. She resisted and pushed him away. He reacted in a violent manner and a fight began with him and three other colleagues.’ The guy in question apparently turned up to work the next day as normal. ‘He was really happy and talking about how good the night was. Then HR and the building’s security came to his desk and we never saw him again.’

While Christmas parties are fun for a lot of people, they can also be tricky to circumnavigate for others who just aren’t that bothered about swimming in a sea of booze, having embarrassing conversations and feeling perpetually mortified thereafter. And it’s no secret that they can be a thorny dilemma for employers. The fact that HR firms feel the need to publish advice on dealing with the seasonal office knees-up says a lot.

But why is it like this? Can’t we all just chill out? Maybe it’s because, when it comes to full-time work, the UK has the longest working week in Europe. Or because research has concluded that a lot of British workers currently feel stressed, ignored and knackered. Or perhaps it’s just the fact that we have always been a nation of hopelessly determined drinkers. Who knows? But Christmas party season is in full swing and it’s all likely to come to a head once again.

*All names in this article have been changed to protect the anonymity of the subjects.