Office holiday parties have always posed a liability for employers, as coworkers mix with one another with plenty of company-supplied alcohol. Sensitivity is running particularly high this year, though, as new sexual harassment allegations emerge against high-profile figures every day.
Office holiday functions do serve a legitimate business purpose: They can boost morale and reward workers for jobs well done.
“In a world where telecommuting and virtual work and the gig economy is structured such that we don’t have a whole lot of face time anymore, it’s a natural opportunity to get together,” says Louis Lessig, an employment attorney in Westmont, N.J.
But because holiday parties are still work functions, Lessig says, employers are often legally liable, even if the incidents occur at venues off site.
“When it comes to your small to midsize company, there’s an awful lot of concern, because certainly one significant hit for a claim like this could put them out of business,” he says.
And what happens at the party usually does not stay at the party.
“Everyone has an iPhone or an Android phone, which means everyone can take a picture or a video of anything that happens at a moment’s notice,” Lessig says.
Jim Reidy, an employment lawyer based in Manchester, N.H., hears a fair amount about office holiday parties gone wrong. Last year, the high-profile CEO of a local company kicked things off by hanging mistletoe from the front of his pants belt, Reidy says, “dancing around and making suggestions [saying,] ‘It’s the holidays, can’t you see the mistletoe?’ ”
This spectacle did not meet his HR department’s definition of holiday cheer.
“[The CEO’s] response was, ‘I was kidding; everybody knows I’m kidding,’ ” Reidy says, but evidently many employees did not see it that way.
“There were also a segment of people saying, ‘Do I say something,’ ” Reidy says. But there was also the fear for retaliation or being seen as the buzzkill without a sense of humor. “That’s emblematic of why a lot of employers have gotten away from” holiday parties, he says.
This was a good year for many companies and they have cash to spend on parties. One CareerBuilder survey found 71 percent of employers are hosting holiday parties this year, up 10 percentage points from a decade ago. But Reidy, who recently surveyed about 40 companies in his area, found that this year more than half opted to go non-alcoholic at their shindigs.
Several organizations, including NPR, in recent weeks have fired or suspended male executives who’ve been accused of harassment. Vox Media fired its editorial director in October for sexual harassment. Later, the company sent an email to its New York employees saying, instead of an open bar, it will issue two drink tickets for every guest. It changed its policy, Vox said, at the request of many employees.
For those serving alcohol, Reidy advises other measures, like limiting the length of the party, or holding the event during the day and inviting spouses and children. Overall, says Reidy, workplace parties are far tamer than they were back in the 1980s and ’90s.
“That said, a lot of employers assumed that everybody got it with regard to sex harassment, yet we’re still seeing these claims now surface,” he says.
Mark Spund, an attorney in New York City, says there may be an upside to the heightened concern among employers.
“They are getting much more sensitive to it and we are getting more calls about it,” he says. Some smaller clients have opted to give employees gift cards, instead. “I’ve advised employers to republish their sexual harassment policies to be given out prior to any holiday party,” which might make for a lot less eventful morning after.