The office grinch may have a point — it’s not fun if it’s forced

Once at a hotel, I spied a group of women in sparkly outfits out on their Christmas jolly. They ran to the dance floor, jumped up and down, and shouted, “fun, fun, fun”. Not just once, but for the duration of that banging tune and then the next, before returning to their seats. Was this an expression of pure joy or a protest directed at their employer?

I like to think it was the latter. Because who hasn’t felt a frisson of irritation — or even the weight of misery — attending a naff work event hell-bent on putting the fun into function? This Christmas, after the pandemic put the brake on office jollies, many employees may find themselves experiencing forced fun for the first time in two years.

Some, of course, had endured virtual cocktails, wreath making and even online discos with big-name DJs. In 2020, Judge Jules told the FT how bizarre it was to play to employees in their bedrooms and kitchens: “There’s no goggle-eyed people in front of you, no audience.”

Perhaps it is OK to resist boss-directed jollity? Certainly, it would seem to be in France, where last month, a court backed a man’s right to say no to forced fun. It found in favour of the consultant who had been dismissed after he refused to join in socialising, which, according to the ruling, involved weekend drinks, “excessive alcoholism” and “promiscuity, bullying and incitement to various excesses”.

I’m no grinch. I’ve partaken of alcohol and danced, sometimes with other people. A party is a chance to let off steam, a reward for working hard, a reminder that work is a collective enterprise and an opportunity to discover new sides to colleagues.

But organised office fun can swiftly stray into un-fun. As management writer Stephen Fineman once wrote: “Fun typically gains its ‘funness’ from its spontaneity, surprise, and often subversion of the extant order.” Of course, not all fun can be spontaneous. Sometimes it takes preparation — for a party, drinks or dinner.

Fun is between consenting adults, seemingly compulsory un-fun is not. Peter Fleming, author of The Mythology of Work, points out that attendance at a work party may not be mandatory, but the power of being labelled a “party-pooper by the person who ultimately pays your salary” can make it feel that way.

Some people are just not wired for office parties. Nancy Rothbard, professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, says some employees are “integrators”, meaning they are happy with work seeping into their home life and vice versa; others, “segmentors”, are not. Managers, she says, must allow employees not to participate and also offer other activities, such as a working lunch or even just mentoring, to forge connections and “build trust”.

So many work events play to extroverts’ strengths. Recently, I met a self-declared introvert who took issue with his characterisation as the office recluse for not wanting to attend company socials, such as karaoke. “I can’t work a room but can probably make long-term relationships better,” he told me.

Work events can transport us back to schooldays. One friend reports going to a team bowling night that was so un-fun — she came last out of 20, her low score broadcast on a massive board — that it made her feel physically ill, reminding her of being bad at PE. The same people who ruled the playground are often rewarded at the office party.

From the outside, it can be hard to understand how a company operates. For many new recruits, who have spent so much time in the last couple of years working remotely, a party might be the first time they see it up close. They might like what they see, or they may not.

If the turkey is drab and the conversation matches, the Christmas party could trigger an epiphany: that in the new year, it’s time for a new job.

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