Rethinking the Holiday Office Party in Light of Harassment Scandals

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By Gail Cecchettini Whaley

Don’t let a festive holiday office party set you up for ongoing HR headaches!

Some companies may be rethinking their traditional office holiday party this year due to the spotlight on workplace harassment and the nearly daily allegations against individuals in high profile companies, Hollywood, the media and government.

The office party has long been a potential powder keg. Add a relaxed and celebratory atmosphere to an open bar, music and dancing at an off-site location and all you need is one lit match for it to explode. If someone drinks too much and sexually harasses another employee during a holiday party, employers can be liable — depending on the circumstances. An off-site and after-hours party doesn’t reduce your liability for a company-sponsored event. Moreover, recent California cases have expanded employer liability for drunk driving accidents following company parties.

Precautionary measures may well be in order. And that’s just what companies are doing this year.

According to a survey by Chicago-based consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., 11 percent of employers won’t have a holiday party this year, even though they held a party in the past — up four percent from 2016 and the highest percentage since the recession.

Those who aren’t cancelling parties may be curtailing them: Over 15 percent of companies will budget less for office parties this year. Furthermore, fewer of these parties will serve alcohol, use caterers or other outside services, or invite guests of employees to attend.

Only 49 percent of companies plan to serve alcohol at their holiday events. Last year, that number was 62 percent, the most ever in the decade the firm has run its survey. The number had been going up each year as the economy improved.

“Employers are currently very wary of creating an environment where inappropriate contact between employees could occur,” said Andrew Challenger, Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., in a statement.

“One way to create a safer environment is to limit the guest list, hold the party during the workday, and avoid serving alcohol,” added Challenger.

Alcohol Fuels the Fire

One 2015 survey, commissioned by Caron Treatment Centers, found that more than 10 percent of those attending workplace holiday parties experience effects from drinking at the party that could lead to problems for your company. Some of the social effects were:
Needing to apologize to colleagues;
Having their behavior negatively impacting their standing at work; or
People posting embarrassing photos/videos of them online that were taken while they were drunk.

Physical effects include vomiting, experiencing a headache, passing out or getting drunk quickly from mixing alcohol with medicine.

In 2011, a similar survey, also commissioned by Caron, reported that co-workers saw someone under the influence of alcohol behave inappropriately at a work-related outing:
30 percent have seen someone flirt with a co-worker or supervisor.
28 percent witnessed a fellow partygoer drive drunk.
26 percent indicated a colleague or supervisor shared inappropriate details about themselves or a co-worker.
19 percent witnessed someone arguing or becoming aggressive with a colleague or supervisor.
9 percent claimed co-workers or supervisors engaged in sexual activity while under the influence of alcohol.

Plan Ahead

If your company wants to continue its holiday office party tradition, you need to think in advance about how to manage holiday parties to avoid potential hazards.

Employers may want to consider holding the party on-site during the work day and serving only non-alcoholic drinks at their holiday events.

If you do choose to serve alcohol at your party, take measures in advance to limit the amount people can drink. For instance, you can enforce a drink ticket policy, have bartenders instead of a self-serve bar, close the bar early, serve food, arrange for transportation home and make sure that non-drinking individuals are monitoring the situation.

Perhaps the best way to pre-empt holiday party harassment claims is through careful communication. Set the expectation — let people know what behaviors are and are not acceptable. Send out an email before the party reminding employees in advance of your company expectations regarding professional behavior at office parties and that your Equal Employment Opportunity policy applies to office social events.

Above all, don’t let one day set you up for ongoing HR headaches!

Gail Cecchettini Whaley, CalChamber Senior Employment Law Counsel

CalChamber’s free white paper Set the Tone: Sexual Harassment Prevention discusses best practices for managing your organizations sexual harassment risk. CalChamber members can access this white paper on HRCalifornia.

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