When the leadership team at Right Management turned up to the staff Christmas party dressed in drag a few years back, the atmosphere in the room instantly lifted.
Because the bosses had loosened up, this sent the message to staff that they could too, says Tim Roche, the company's practice leader in career transition who went as a female member of the band the B-52s.
But when it comes to festive drinking, workforce experts such as Roche stress there's an invisible line that senior execs shouldn't cross.
“You can get away with being a bit outrageous as long you're not sloshed,” he says.
Peter Wilson, the national president of the Australian Human Resource Institute, says that more than ever, bosses are living in glass houses.
“People really watch the behaviour of the boss to see what they do,” he says. “If the top boss behaves badly, lots of others will too.”
Lisa Berton, an employment law specialist at Kemp Strang, says if previous years are anything to go by, workplace complaints will spike as the Christmas season peaks.
The most common post-party accusations levelled at executives, she says, usually involve sexual harassment or disparaging their colleagues.
“The traditional example is where someone makes advances on a junior employee or says something inappropriate. When alcohol is thrown into the mix, people sometimes let their standards slip,” she says.
And, she says, where milder embarrassments – such as getting too amorous on the dance floor – might once have quickly been forgotten, these days there's Facebook.
“Relaxation levels are lower in the smartphone era because of the risk there will be physical evidence of you letting your hair down a bit too much,” Berton says.
But on the flip side, bosses needn't come across as too buttoned up, according to Charles Cameron, a partner in the human resources division of workplace relations specialist, FCB Group.
He says the younger generation is seeking a more relaxed work environment and their bosses are being influenced by that expectation.
“It's about getting the balance right and then fostering that approach all through the year – not just at the annual Christmas party,” he says.
Here are some guidelines for those at the top:
Stay under the legal limit
There's a fine line between relaxing with a few festive drinks and overdoing it if you're the boss, according to Roche.
“You can be a little charged but not overcharged. Don't slur your words, and make sure you can walk in a straight line,” he says.
Wilson says the standard of law for driving is the safest rule of thumb.
“A senior executive's role is to be a guardian or trustee of good behaviour. Treat it like you're on driver's duty.”
Keep an eye on others
Experts say senior execs have a duty to promote the safety of others at the party.
That means delicately managing intoxicated staff members and helping them get home safely.
In the modern workplace, Cameron says, it should be OK for staff to recognise they've done something they regret.
“Bosses can help by encouraging an open working culture that gives people the confidence to come forward,” he says.
If things go pear-shaped
If a boss blots their copybook at Christmas, they should apologise to anyone affected by their behaviour at the earliest opportunity and acknowledge they acted inappropriately, Wilson says.
He suggests they also show willingness to repair any damage, for instance to their work relationships or the company's reputation.
“Perhaps you could arrange to do something for charity to indicate your remorse,” he says.
- Sydney Morning Herald