Careful employers always include a dash of liability awareness in their recipes for successful holiday parties, but concerns about alcohol-fueled misconduct have grown more acute following the recent wave of sexual harassment scandals.
Although employers have no reason to expect any increase in unacceptable behavior at this year’s office holiday parties, HR departments should brace themselves for more complaints than usual following high-profile accusations against a host of men in the worlds of media, entertainment, and politics, attorneys and consultants say.
There was a surge in sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the six months after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991, in which former staffer Anita Hill accused him of harassment, Nancy Delogu, a shareholder in the Washington offices of Littler Mendelson, told Bloomberg Law. "It will be interesting to see" if that happens again, she said.
"It’s likelier people will complain" this year, said Jonathan A. Segal, a partner in Philadelphia-based management-side law firm Duane Morris LLP.
"It’s the alcohol," said Dallas-based consultant Holly Caplan. Upon hearing the word "party," people seem to "think it’s a free pass to act like an idiot," she said.
The better economic times of the past few years apparently prompted more employers to offer alcohol at their holiday parties. Some 62 percent of employers offered alcohol at their parties last year, up from 41 percent in 2014, according to surveys from Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.
But that trend stopped this year. Less than half (48 percent) of employers surveyed in 2017 said they plan to offer up wine, beer, or spirits this season.
Still, Andrew Challenger, the outplacement firm’s vice president, gave the following advice: "Employers have to be aware of how they’re serving alcohol." HR professionals should get involved with the decision to serve alcohol, check the company’s insurance coverage, and hire professionals to monitor any alcohol consumption at the party, he said.
Bloomberg BNA's annual report on year-end holiday practices includes further details on this issue, revealing that precautionary measures are quite common among employers that make beer, wine, or liquor available at their holiday parties. The results show that 86 percent will put in place one or more safeguards to prevent excessive consumption or keep party attendees from driving after imbibing.
Standards of Conduct
One way to cut down on holiday party mischief is to have the CEO set expectations for appropriate conduct at the event, Caplan suggested.
Employers can also make things more fun and "encourage individuals to be on their best behavior" by inviting employees’ significant others and families to attend their holiday events, said Brandi Britton, district president at OfficeTeam.
Other tips from Britton on ways to minimize the potential for holiday party mishaps include the following:
• Consider holding the event during regular business hours on a weekday;
• Before the party, remind employees of standard workplace conduct rules;
• Keep the event simple and avoid party activities that could cause awkwardness; and
• Tell managers to set a professional example and watch out for questionable employee behavior.
Segal said managers should take responsibility for stopping inappropriate behavior immediately during a holiday party. And afterwards, employers must see to it that corrective action is taken.
Challenger echoed that advice, adding that employers should investigate rumors of inappropriate behavior, as well as formal harassment complaints.
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