The Office Christmas Party, a rite of atonement

This is the week of the Office Christmas Party.  Suddenly it seems as if performance standards, working hours, dress codes and even drug policies don’t count any more in US corporations, as their employees move in flocks from one party to the next. At the university, where I work, it is hard to find a couple of minutes to get something done.  We move from the President’s to the Provost’s to the Dean’s party; and from there on to the department’s office, to finally end up at student career services, where they have the best food, as everybody knows.

There is no other country in the world where Christmas is celebrated so intensely in the workplace.  Scholars in organization theory have identified this phenomenon as a rite of integration, that “encourages and revives common feelings, binding members together and committing them to the organization,” as it says in one of the leading textbooks.  They are, unfortunately, mistaken.   What we are dealing with is not a rite of integration; it is a rite of atonement.

By comparison, Americans in non-management positions are the most exploited workers in the industrialized world.  They rank number one in productivity, a mere fifteenth in wages and salaries, and although workers in five industrialized countries have fewer vacation and holidays, most American workers are afraid to use the ones they have earned.  But once a year, during the week before Christmas, management lets them off the hook.  Companies with the strictest drug policies keep the bar open, and paid for, until well after midnight.  In the most formal offices, blue jeans become fashionable, and a serious study might show that the more exploitative the workplace, the bigger the bash.

There is a tribe in Africa where the male members have a very dominant position in the family.  But one day of the year, the men wear make-up and stay at home, while the women go out hunting.  This week, in America, managers are wearing the make-up.  Take a good look at them and party, because the rest of the year they won’t be so pretty.

Hugo Kijne



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