Time-tested Traditions for Finishing the Year on a Good Note

Thanksgiving is past, Santa has set up camp in the local mall, and the days are getting shorter. As 2011 draws to a close, it's a good time to look at a few year-end traditions of U.S. and Japanese businesses.

Although employee priorities are often elsewhere at this time of year, December is a make-or-break month for the economy overall, especially in the U.S., where consumer spending accounts for about 70% of the economy. Holiday shopping kicks off in earnest on the day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday), usually the biggest shopping day of the year.

U.S. retail businesses, which often get 30-40% of their annual sales in November and December, do whatever they can to entice shoppers into their stores. This year, in addition to offering great sales, a number of stores opened for business at midnight. Bargain-crazed shoppers lined up in order to be the first in the door.

Japan boasts more than its share of world-class shoppers, but year-end spending is not quite as important as it is in the U.S. Consumer spending accounts for about 60% of the Japanese economy, and despite the dedicated efforts of some retailers, Christmas in Japan is not yet an economic juggernaut.

On the social front, December is also a traditional time for relationship-building. Companies in both the U.S. and Japan often send gifts to key clients or business partners to thank them for their business (and hopefully attract more in the future). Fruit, fancy foods, chocolates and tchotchkes are common (and safe) gifts in both countries.

Occasionally an item will leave a more lasting impression – I still remember a miniature gargoyle that briefly passed my desk on the way to being recycled. However, even it was not quite as, um, eye-catching as the poster-size promotional calendars featuring bikini-clad Japanese girls that used to grace the walls of my Japanese employer's office!

Many U.S. companies will give employees a special bonus or holiday gift with the (unsubstantiated) hope that it will endear them to the organization. Some will organize "Secret Santa" gift exchanges (where each employee gives little gifts anonymously to somebody else in the company). However, the crowning event for most companies is the annual holiday party. Often fueled by an open bar and let-your-hair-down holiday spirit, these events can become legendary. Hint: if you're ever grasping for a conversation topic over cocktails, ask people to share their wildest holiday office party stories!

The Japanese equivalent is the bonenkai (literally, "forget the year party"). Bonenkai aren't limited to company events, but the company ones come with the idea that in the alcohol-assisted effort to forget the year, employees have special dispensation to criticize the boss sitting across the table. I have it on good authority, though, that it's best not to take this freedom at face value.

No doubt many readers are already in the midst of their year-end activities. So, before you head off to a few days of Christmas or New Year's vacation, I'll just say that I hope you at least take part in a holiday party for the ages.

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