December 04, 2017

Holiday office parties sober up amid greater scrutiny over sex harassment scandals

Many companies are limiting alcohol, study finds

Holiday Parties Sexual Harassment
12042017_holiday_office_party_iStock gpointstudio/iStock.com

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Holiday office parties – particularly those that include free-flowing alcohol – are falling under greater scrutiny this holiday season, thanks in part to the series of high-profile, sex scandals dominating the national news.

“I think that businesses are taking a harder look at everything they do that involves social interaction that’s not strictly work-related,” said Heather Herrington, an attorney and vice president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of Human Resource Management.

Employers are also looking at how “their policies and procedures around those interactions are written and enforced – if they’re enforced,” she said.

Many companies are limiting – or even eliminating – booze from their holiday parties, a far cry from the Mad Men-esque parties of decades past. Others will utilize party monitors to watch for inappropriate behavior.

And mistletoe is certainly out of the question at many gatherings. 

“I think it is a continuation of a trend,” Herrington said. “Some of it is financial. I think there are companies that are cutting back in general after building the parties back up after some prosperous years. But I also think this is a trend to make any corporate interaction a little more formal and less of a free-for-all.”

Only 49 percent of companies plan to serve alcohol at their holiday events this year, according to a survey conducted by Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago-based consulting firm.

Last year, that mark stood at 62 percent, the highest number in the decade that the firm has conducted its survey. As the economy improved, that number had risen.

Until this year.

For instance, Vox Media will forgo an open bar at its holiday party, according to The Huffington Post. Instead, employees will receive two tickets that can be redeemed for drinks.

The company recently fired its editorial director, Lockhart Steele, after a former employee brought sexual harassment allegations against him.

“These incidents – they don’t all happen at the office party with someone with a lampshade on their head. They happen in people’s offices throughout the year.” – Debra Casey, assistant professor, Temple University

The “Weinstein effect” is real, Herrington said. But she wondered whether the reduction of alcohol or elimination of holiday parties altogether is a “knee-jerk reaction.”

“It may be just that – a knee-jerk reaction – and might be less effective if that’s all it is,” Herrington said.

Instead, Herrington said, the ongoing conversation about sexual conduct is an opportunity for companies and human resource professionals to take real action against sexual harassment in the workplace.

“I think that it’s having an approach from the leadership down that makes it clear that it’s an environment where if people feel they are being sexually harassed … they’ll actually have a voice and actually be heard,” Herrington said.

That means implementing and adhering to policies and procedures – “not just lip service,” she said.

'THERE'S ALWAYS SLOPPY BEHAVIOR'

Simply eliminating holiday parties will not eliminate sexual harassment from the workplace, said Debra Casey, assistant professor of human resource management at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.

The sex scandals being reported in the news are not cases where someone got drunk at a holiday party, Casey said. Rather, sexual harassment often stems from powerful co-workers who feel the rules don’t apply.

“These incidents – they don’t all happen at the office party with someone with a lampshade on their head,” Casey said. “They happen in people’s offices throughout the year.”

Casey, who is also an attorney, fondly remembered the parties and happy hours she enjoyed as a young lawyer. She also recalled going to IBM holiday parties and summer picnics as a child.

“If you look back decades ago – take it all the way back to the '70s – companies were renowned for their holiday parties. Some of them were more family inclusive. It as almost as if they were trying to best each other with the holiday parties.”

But many of these large-scale events have fallen by the wayside, for a variety of reasons. Behavioral issues included.

“There’s always sloppy behavior from somebody,” Casey said. “I just don’t think companies want to be associated with that anymore. I don’t even know if they can afford to be associated with that.”

Now, alcohol is often limited – or restricted – for liability purposes or to ensure that everyone feels welcome, including people who don’t approve of drinking for religious reasons. And parties now have defined end times.

But Casey hopes holiday parties are not killed completely, noting in some industries they help foster the connections and creativity needed to succeed.

“You can take all the alcohol away and you can take all the parties away,” Casey said. “It’s not going to solve the sexual harassment issue.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.