Ho Ho Hold Off On The Mistletoe: Safer Holiday Parties

By Mark F. Kluger and William H. Healey

With sexual harassment allegations being brought against every man you’ve ever heard of, conducting holiday parties this year requires employers to tiptoe carefully through the Reindeer droppings. Although we quietly rejoice in anticipation of all the new sexual harassment lawsuits that Santa will be leaving under our tree this season, we genuinely want our clients and friends to bring good cheer with minimal risk.

Let’s face it, as we described in Harvey, Harvey, Harvey (https://tinyurl.com/ydez5bbv) and Keeping Up (https://tinyurl.com/y8fcvw4y),employees have never felt more empowered to complain about workplace sexual harassment. So with holiday party season upon us, employers must be more vigilant than ever when holding the traditional breeding ground for bad behavior. Things are so bad, we hear that even Sesame Street is considering cancelling its holiday party because Miss Piggy claims that Ernie looked at her longingly, while Elmo complained of being misgendered (if you don’t know, look it up).

More than 11% of companies that  held holiday parties in the past are skipping this year, according to Challenger Gray’s annual survey, and more than 15% of those having events, reduced the budget significantly. Some call this the Weinstein Effect, but whoever does came way late to the party because the WeinsteinSpaceyCKHalperinTamborFrankenConyersRoseLauer effect (we no doubt missed some) grows daily. For those employers bold enough to continue with tradition in light of this sexual harassment tsunami, we must reiterate our best advice on how to do so as safely as possible.

Alcohol free, not free alcohol, remains our most popular advice to ignore. About 49% of companies surveyed by Challenger Gray plan to serve alcohol this year, but that is down from nearly 62% last year. If alcohol is served, do anything to limit the amount consumed and the resulting erosion of good judgment, such as drink tickets (we know it’s tacky, but not worse than a lawsuit) or wine and beer only. Hire professional bartenders with instructions to cut off anyone who can’t spell the company name. Hold the party in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week.  Invite spouses and significant others; there is no better deterrent than their watchful eye. Keep the food flowing and have entertainment that keeps employees from drinking out of boredom. But entertainment does not mean, stripper Elves and games of pin the tail on the intern. Those days are over.

If you must engage in the dreaded annual Secret Santa, keep the instructions simple….Sex toys, edible underwear or condoms, you’re fired! And anyone named Matt can’t participate. If you insist on having a Santa give out the gifts, we beg you…no good ever comes from employees sitting on his lap, even if he is the beloved 101 year old founder. Either invite the real Santa or just don’t do it. If someone does give an inappropriate gift, the most senior manager on the spot must say out loud that it is not acceptable and will be dealt with accordingly–and then follow through.

A pre-party memo reminding employees of expectations for appropriate behavior, with the sexual harassment policy attached, might feel Scrooge-like, but it sure will help our defense if a lawsuit does emanate from the festivities. HR and managers must stay sober and keep their eyes open for behavior that may lead to trouble. While that may be a lousy way for those employees to participate in the event, that’s why they get the big bucks.

Our last piece of advice is a secret just for senior management and HR only. Everyone else, please do not continue reading. So many employment cases today involve some form of recording. A video of the CFO doing a striptease on top of the bar will not be good for the defense. So while employees will likely be annoyed, it’s not a bad idea to ask them to keep their cell phones outside the party, of course under the guise of we don’t want anyone looking at emails or answering calls for a few hours while you enjoy the party. Even if some do bring their phones, ask them to turn them off. That might buy us enough time to get the CFO off the bar before the phone turns on. We can only hope.

More on holiday parties next week.