New research from The Institute of Leadership & Management hints at widespread ambivalence in the UK workforce about those unavoidable fixtures of the winter calendar: work Christmas parties.

While 82% of the 1,000 managers the Institute surveyed view the opportunity for team bonding as the biggest benefit of these events, other findings suggest that they don’t necessarily provide staff with enough scope to be themselves. Some 19% of managers said that they were unable to properly relax during Christmas parties, thanks to the sense of responsibility that lingers over them from the rigors of office life.

In evidence that one in 10 managers provided of challenges they’ve faced at parties gone by, three-quarters of awkward incidents involved excessive consumption of alcohol – and indeed many of the respondents (7%) felt as though they’ve been put under too much pressure to get drunk at Yuletide celebrations.

Among the other difficulties that managers have run into are outbreaks of fighting – sometimes between senior figures – along with inappropriate behaviour, such as sexual misconduct (both consensual and harassment) and the consumption of illegal drugs. While the atmosphere of a work Christmas party would undoubtedly reveal insights about who some people really are, they would also surely encourage others to act drastically out of character – while some may simply not be able to get into the festivities at all.

How can managers safely encourage people to enjoy themselves at these events in ways that will enable them to remain authentic?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “For me, the biggest finding was that 82% of managers can see the potential of these events, so that certainly indicates that the will is there to make a success of them. Christmas parties provide a marvellous chance for workers to speak to people in other departments with whom they wouldn’t normally socialise – or to those whom they do work alongside, on the pretext that you don’t have to talk about work. In fact, there should really be a sense that the social time that Christmas parties provide shouldn’t somehow bleed into work time, so ideally, shop talk should be kept to an absolute minimum.”

Cooper points out: “The fact that so many managers in the survey said that they’re stressed by the effort to ensure that their parties succeed shows just how important these events have become at every level of the workforce. But if parties are in any way leaving people out – which the survey showed was a particular problem for remote workers – then they’re not inclusive or team building. They’re actively divisive.

“Managers are under scrutiny the whole time, and the messaging their Christmas parties send out is increasingly critical to how they are perceived. If you hold one where staff don’t feel looked after – or where they get the impression that cost was a big issue and it seems to have been pulled together begrudgingly – then that will undoubtedly colour how you are viewed and talked about.”

She adds: “These parties require a great deal of planning and thought, months out from when they’re scheduled to happen, so getting the details right is essential. Make sure that people feel included by consulting them. Choose an interesting, yet common-sense, venue that will enable people to find their way home, and help staff to plan their journeys so that they’ll feel safe. The ultimate goal is to give your guests a great feeling that they can sustain into the New Year, whereby they are glad to work with each other, and like each other.

“As Google discovered in its recent study on what makes a perfect team, having a high degree of social sensitivity that engenders trust really does contribute to high performance. Christmas parties play a huge part in that equation.”

For more on this topic, check out the Institute’s free webinar, Christmas in the Workplace