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Holiday Parties Gone Wrong: Careful Where You Hang The Mistletoe

Dec 17, 2017
Originally published on December 18, 2017 2:20 pm

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.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Office holiday parties have the potential to go very, very wrong. Your boss, colleagues, booze - often not a great mix. This year, NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports sensitivity is running particularly high in the age of #metoo.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Office holiday functions do serve a legitimate business purpose. They can boost morale and reward workers for jobs well done. Louis Lessig is an employment attorney in Westmont, N.J.

LOUIS LESSIG: 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.

NOGUCHI: But with parties, come occasional mischief. And because holiday parties are still work functions, Lessig says employers are often legally liable even if incidents occur at venues offsite.

LESSIG: When it comes to your small to mid-sized company, there's an awful lot of concern because, certainly, one significant hit for a claim like this could put them out of business.

NOGUCHI: And he says what happens at a party, rarely stays at the party.

LESSIG: Everyone has an iPhone or Android phone, which means everyone can take a picture or video of anything that happens in a moment's notice.

NOGUCHI: Jim Reidy is an employment lawyer based in Manchester, N.H., and 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.

JIM REIDY: And dancing around and making suggestions about, you know, it's the holidays. Can't you see the mistletoe? And making suggestions and so on.

NOGUCHI: This spectacle did not meet his HR department's definition of holiday cheer.

REIDY: His response was I was kidding. Everybody knows I'm kidding. I would never do that. But, you know, what runs contrary to that is the fact that he was hanging mistletoe off of his belt.

NOGUCHI: Reidy says it also put employees in a quandary.

REIDY: They were also a segment of people saying you know, do I say something, and fear for retaliation or being sort of that buzz kill at the party. That's emblematic of why a lot of employers have gotten away from this.

NOGUCHI: Reidy says a lot of his cases sound like scenes from sitcoms.

REIDY: Everything from the misuse of the photocopier for people to take pictures of body parts and send them to others or post them around the office to dancing the forbidden dance was a case that we had.

NOGUCHI: 2017 was a good year for many companies, and they have cash to spend on parties. But Reidy, who surveyed about 40 companies in his area, says, this year, more than half opted to go non-alcoholic at their shindigs. Vox Media fired its editorial director in October for sexual harassment. Earlier this month, the company sent an email to its New York employees saying, instead of an open bar, it would issue two drink tickets for every guest. It changed its policy, Vox said, at many employees' request.

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 Riedy, workplace parties are far tamer than they were during the 1980s and '90s.

REIDY: That said, a lot of employers assume that everybody got it with regard to sex harassment, yet we're still seeing these claims now surface.

NOGUCHI: Mark Spund, an attorney in New York City, says there may be an upside to the heightened concern among employers hosting parties.

MARK SPUND: They are getting much more sensitive to it. We are getting more calls about it. I've advised employers to republish their sexual harassment policy to be given out prior to any holiday party.

NOGUCHI: And that, he says, might make for a lot less eventful morning after. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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