The worst christmas party ever

I mean it! It really was bad.

I was working as a sub-contractor for a mid-sized charity on the West Coast and happened to schedule myself into the main office the week just before Christmas. One of the days I was there happened to be the organization’s annual employee Christmas party.

It was a smallish office, about a dozen employees of so in-house. From a handwritten announcement on a bulletin board I learned that the “party” was scheduled for 2 p.m. So, wanting to join in and thinking I might learn something more about the dynamics of that group, I attended.

At first, I thought I had wandered into a wake. The room was deadly silent. Each employee had brought something to eat – cookies, cake, bread, and each had to supply their own drink because the organization supplied nothing.

That’s right, nothing. Not one thing. No drinks, no snacks, no candy, not even coffee. If anything was to be had, someone other than the director or the organization had to supply it. Now I found this very strange because I was managing the organization’s investment portfolio at the time and I knew that it had over 3.2 million dollars in RESERVE funds from which it earned more than $200,000 a year in interest. Over two hundred grand a year in interest earnings, 3+ million in reserve, and the organization would not even spring for soft drinks (it was a teetotaling Christian charity) or snacks.

Everyone sat around saying nothing, so somber and depressing it was and they were. After about 15 minutes or so, everyone got up and went back to work. The director never even made an appearance; preferring to remain cloistered inside his office.

It was the worst company Christmas party I ever attended.

Since I’m in the middle of a series called Flipping the Switch and addressing the subject of motivation, and since we’re about to celebrate Christmas, this not-so-happy memory triggers an important and graphic reminder about employee rewards.

Either do it well or don’t do it at all. When you respect your associates and employees, you implement rewards that reflect that respect and hold at least some intrinsic value. The above-referenced Christmas party reflected no value of any kind to the employees. At the very least the organization could have paid the employees for their fifteen minutes of riotous celebration but it made each of them clock out. It had all the atmosphere of a grudge match.

Nothing says you care like your presence. For God’s sake, show up. And act like you like being there. Hiding in your office sends a loud message and be certain that your associates do hear it. The organization’s director of the aforementioned event wasn’t named Ebenezer Scrooge but he should have been. The message that was communicated said quite loudly that he did not want to be there, did not care for what was happening, and would rather “they” stayed working like he was. It transmitted clearly that the director functioned in the leadership style of a martyr, and that those slackers could afford time away from their responsibilities but he could not. If you plan a reward event, make absolutely certain that you at least make an attentive and upbeat appearance.

Don’t give with one hand and take away with the other. When one large corporation (not the aforementioned one) has their twice-annual employee appreciation dinners, they give the local outlets a measly $200 budget for a store with 135 employees. Two hundred bucks!! The corporation’s annual net in 2013 was just under $2 billion and the best they could do was $1.50 per employee for an appreciation dinner. Then to make things worse, when they announced to the employees the date of the dinner they were careful to warn everyone that times are tough so could everyone pitch in and bring food and would “You guys please not eat too much.” It is a short-sighted and de-energizing strategy. See #1 again. Granted, the major corporation has about 250,000 employees and the total cost of an appreciation dinner for everyone would set them back $375,000.00 but it would be money well spent move and them much farther forward. Corporate suits see the big picture, but employees, associates, and staff live in the little frame. Frankly, the employees do not care what it costs for everyone, they feel what was spent on them. The message communicated was not frugality, cost-consciousness, or tight management. The message sent was one of tight-fistedness and little value. The company sees the total cost. The employee sees the personal worth and in both these cases, it is not much. Let’s go back to Mr. Scrooge. He had a number of workers whom he termed independent sub-contractors so he could avoid having to pay the benefits mandated by the government. He announced that he was increasing the hourly rate thereby giving all those “independent sub-contractors” a raise. The next day he then sent a memo limiting the number of billable hours per week thereby giving with one hand and taking away with another.

There are no shortcuts to motivation and no cost-free benefits that are worth anything. Everyone wants a bargain, most want something for nothing. It cannot be effectively done when you’re trying to motivate, energize, or inspire your associates and employees. It’s like trying to run your’ car’s engine with air alone. Fuel costs money and your car will not run without it. Of course, we want efficiency and economy. Monitoring and controlling expenses are part of the job. But you can do yourself damage. You can save money by mixing water with fuel but it won’t run for long and there will be costly consequences.

Effective leaders and managers and their team should not be playing a zero sum game. Not all costs are actually costs. If you must look at them as such, you will immediately and always participate in the management/leadership equation as adversaries with those you lead and manage. Each will learn to make as many points as they can at the other’s expense. If the stories above hit close to home, you might want to take another look at the dynamics in play…and do what you can to change them.

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