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2018-02-27 02:47:24 Commentary

China’s lunar new year celebrations are over and many workers across the country are starting the Year of the Dog with a new job. As they settle into their new positions, however, many people will still be haunted by memories of their previous employer’s deplorable New Year’s party they attended just weeks before.

Most companies in China throw staff parties in the run-up to Spring Festival. Peak season falls sometime between November and February, hitting a crescendo about two weeks prior to the holidays. Many companies view these parties as a way to look back on the previous year, attract new customers, butter up buyers and distributors, and strengthen team cohesion. In order to ensure a lively and celebratory atmosphere, many firms begin planning months in advance, swelling the coffers of China’s costume rental, hospitality, and event-organizing businesses.

Modern life is disrupting many traditional New Year customs; for instance, many young people prefer to stay in the cities where they work rather than returning to their rural hometowns, and official bans on pyrotechnics mean that urban areas no longer pop with the sound of firecrackers. Staff parties have become commonplace in the last 40 years or so, but are one of the few modern customs actually worth promoting, as they can help businesses demonstrate a positive corporate culture and make staff feel valued.

Some companies throw lavish parties, renting out vast theaters or conference halls, contracting high-end event planners, and inviting government bigwigs or celebrities. Other firms corral staff into performing at a gala, turning the whole event into a procession of hit-or-miss karaoke songs, group dances, and comedy skits. Yet no matter which form it takes, the original intention of the Spring Festival party has been lost: Where once it was a simple way for coworkers to relax and interact with each other outside work, it is now increasingly used by management to dissuade staff from leaving and showcase the company’s vitality to the end-of-year job-hopping crowd.

Managers are using year-end parties to further corporate interests over personal ones, reducing the events themselves into crude PR stunts.

And therein lies the problem. After a year spent working, most staff just want to get together to eat, drink, and be merry. They don’t want to spend the evening hobnobbing with clients, sitting through their superiors’ seemingly interminable speeches, or making fools of themselves in front of hundreds, even thousands, of people. Managers are using year-end parties to further corporate interests over personal ones, reducing the events themselves into crude PR stunts where everyone feels awkward.

And when staff are compelled to perform, there is no accounting for taste. Last year, Chinese internet behemoth Tencent was roundly chastised when footage emerged of female staff mimicking oral sex on their male colleagues at a party organized by its QQ messaging division. In January, popular journalist and business consultant Ding Pengfei penned a viral piece titled “I Quit my Job to Avoid the New Year’s Party.” The article’s eviscerating account of the mind-numbing party preparations, endless performances, and awkward sexual undertones was viewed more than 20 million times.

Prize draws are a fixture of almost all end-of-year staff parties in China, but there is a curious correlation between prizewinners and post-holiday resignations. Although this sounds cynical, it is likely because most managers rig raffles in favor of soon-to-be ex-colleagues in order to make them reconsider their resignations or guilt-trip them into speaking well of the company in future. I recall being presented with a rather expensive new camera in fishy circumstances at a former employer’s party — weeks after I had handed in my notice.

Workers complain every year about fixed prize draws, but hardly anyone calls out management on it. Companies can frame prize draws as a way to send off a respected former colleague, and those who go home empty-handed don’t want to seem like spoilsports.

There is no denying that businesses of all sizes see the end-of-year party as a key team-building exercise. And it can be worth the effort, so long as managers and staff alike don’t lose sight of the point of the event. People tend to be wary of organized fun, which is why so many dread parties that substitute relaxed eating and drinking for humiliating public performances in the name of team bonding. In the end, the only surefire way to avoid such cringe-inducing social gatherings is to do what I do, and go freelance.

Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh. 

(Header image: Employees perform at an end-of-year party in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Feb. 3, 2018. IC)