What Clark Griswold's 'Christmas Vacation' Teaches Us About the Employee Experience

The Christmas comedy classic brilliantly reveals the consequences of failing to meet the unspoken, but not unreasonable, expectations employees have.
What Clark Griswold's 'Christmas Vacation' Teaches Us About the Employee Experience
Image credit: Warner Brothers | Getty Images
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It’s a holiday tradition for many. It’s a wintery weekend, and you finally have an hour to turn on the television. You start scrolling through the TV listings and familiar titles start begin to appear. There is Miracle on 34th Street, followed by Die Hard (just because it takes place at a company’s holiday party doesn’t make it a holiday movie).  A few rows down, you find It’s a Wonderful Life next to Home Alone. And then the Christmas Gods smile upon you; you see National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. 

The Chevy Chase classic is easily the winner. Who doesn’t love Clark Griswold, Cousin Eddie and the Rottweiler “Snots?” You smile as Clark Griswold, the protagonist, manhandles the Christmas tree onto the roof of the family car. You relate to the 25,000 twinkle lights that illuminate Clark’s house and his entire street. It’s eerily familiar when the relatives start arriving, and the bickering escalates.

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Christmas day gets closer and closer, and Clark is nervous that he hasn’t seen his yearly bonus come through. Clark is in desperate need of this bonus to cover the advance payment he made on a swimming pool for the backyard. Tensions continue to escalate until finally, on Christmas Eve, Clark receives a package from his company. Relief begins to settles in; yet, instead of containing the long-awaited bonus check, it’s a subscription to the “Jelly of the Month Club.”

Clark immediately loses his composure and goes on a tirade about his boss. Cousin Eddie does the only thing any self-respecting freeloader would do; he breaks into the boss’s house and brings him back to Clark to answer for the injustice that has been foisted upon Clark and his family. Police and SWAT teams storm Clark’s house looking for the kidnapped boss, who declines to press charges after confessing he had wrongly decided to scrap the bonus program. The boss then reinstates the bonuses and gives Clark a raise.

The characters in this movie are spectacular, and each scene is loaded with enough humor to trigger side stitches. But, Christmas Vacation also teaches us a lot about the “Employee Experience,” the danger of unmet expectations, and the tendency of “Psychological Contracts” to take over control of your Employee Experience, if you let it.

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Those who are stewards over the Employee Experience, whether it’s a team lead or a C-suite occupant, need to understand the power of employee expectations. Everything starts with clear expectations, and those expectations need to be aligned. When expectations are being fulfilled by employers and employees, you can be confident that communication is open and honest, authenticity is high, people are engaged. But, danger lurks when expectations are misaligned, as was the case with Clark and his annual bonus.

There is another cautionary tale to be told from Clark’s story. When employers fail to make their expectations clear, employees will find or create expectations to fill the void. Clark’s boss had likely never promised there would always be an annual bonus, but the company’s course of conduct over time certainly created an expectation in Clark that ran a mile deep. Upon deciding to scrap the annual bonuses, Clark’s boss would have been wise to start explaining the consequences and the rationale behind his decision. Don’t ever assume your employees will understand a decision without a clear explanation. In most instances, fairness and empathy mandate you provide an explanation.

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When expectations are not aligned, you can quickly spot the symptoms. You will find lower employee engagement, increased stress (think of Clark’s tirade) amd increased turnover. Anger and resentment will percolate among your employees. Keep a watchful eye out for these symptoms, and when they start appearing, quickly administer the cure by looking for ways to align expectations. Remember, the underlying nature of the expectations is less important to your Employee Experience than ensuring expectations are aligned and consistently met.

Skilled leaders understand that every relationship carries with it a “contract” of sorts: a basic understanding of the terms and conditions that define the operating conditions of the relationship. One part of this “contract” are those terms and conditions that are explicit and well-defined. However, in addition to the defined terms, there are a myriad of other implicit, unspoken beliefs that swirl in and around the contract. We call these unspoken terms and conditions the “Psychological Contract.”

The Psychological Contract is something that anyone who has been part of an organization could identify––an “I can’t describe it, but I know it when I see it” sort of phenomenon. The challenge is that the Psychological Contract doesn’t exist on a piece of paper, and it is often interpreted very differently by both parties. It is forged in the human mind, which can be a murky place.

Clark’s boss failed to consider the Psychological Contract that was at stake when he unilaterally decided to terminate the annual bonuses. Instead of understanding his boss’s position, Clark’s Psychological Contract immediately took over and led him to anger and extreme frustration. Clark’s boss was then left managing a host of very powerful expectations because the terms and conditions of the Psychological Contract were never openly discussed.

The key to remember is that when we honor the Psychological Contract, we engage in the relationship, but when the Psychological Contract is violated, we disengage. Another takeaway is that when a relationship lacks a well-defined understanding, it is the Psychological Contract that takes over and controls. Clark was a valuable employee, whose loss would have cost the company much more than his annual bonus, yet Clark’s employment was immediately at risk because his Psychological Contract had been breached.

While Clark’s meltdown and overall stress make for a fun movie, in day-to-day life the consequences are much more costly and problematic. Morale suffers and productivity plummets. Moreover, it becomes difficult to attract, retain and engage the type of employees your organization needs to succeed. In today’s modern, knowledge-based economy, the difference between average and chart-topping success is your people, plain and simple. Those organizations that win find, retain and engage the best talent possible. A key factor in achieving this goal is aligning expectations and navigating the Psychological Contracts that are a part of every Employee Experience.