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January 01, 2000
Will The Office Holiday Party Become History?

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NEW YORK – November 28 -- Does concern about alcohol-induced sexual harassment quell employees’ ardor for the annual holiday office party? Will companies’ trepidation over legal liability prompt them to poll employees on their feelings regarding office parties? The litigiousness of the workplace as well as changing attitudes among employees may soon force companies to abandon the traditional seasonal office party.

Rather have the time off?
"Companies might find that employees would actually prefer time off versus an afternoon or evening of manufactured frivolity. As employees become more focused on their families and lives away from work, human resource executives say extra time off is often preferred by some employees, even beyond an increase in salary," said workplace authority John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an international outplacment firm. His view is coincident with other recent surveys that show that workers are so pressed for time they would rather have time off than extra pay.

For many employees, the company party is more a source of stress than enjoyment. "The party setting creates a great potential for unwanted sexual advances, lewd jokes or other types of inappropriate behavior," observed Challenger.

According to Challenger, many of the problems associated with office parties stem from the inclusion of alcohol. Yet, despite the increased risks, more than 70 percent of organizations that sponsor holiday parties serve some type of alcoholic beverage, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

"With that much drinking, employers open the door to lawsuits from accidents, altercations, and sexual harassment charges," said Challenger. "The employer may be liable even if the event is off company premises."

"We stopped holiday parties a number of years ago because of alcohol," said Tim Eastom, vice president of human resources at Tokheim Corporation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. "We do not take any more risks." The alcohol-induced party atmosphere is especially ripe for sexual harassment charges. Six percent of human resource executives in the SHRM survey said that unwanted sexual advances or overtures had been observed or reported at holiday parties.

"Many workers would welcome an alternative to the year-end party, such as more days off or larger Christmas bonus checks," said Challenger. The drawback to this approach, of course, is that it defeats part of the original purpose of holiday parties, which is to get employees together in a relaxed, non-work setting.

Family friendly party Another alternative to the traditional holiday bash that would satisfy employees’ desire to spend time with their families during the holidays is to plan events that involve the entire family, or at least spouses/significant others. Not only might this option be preferred by many employees, but it could greatly reduce the potential for alcohol-related misdeeds.

"As more and more companies implement family-friendly policies, they also find that employees are very receptive to holiday parties that either limit the amount of time away from the family or include the family," said Challenger.

Despite the risk of legal entanglements and the evidence that employees would prefer some alternative to the typical party, companies are currently more eager than ever to hold the traditional holiday bash. The SHRM survey revealed that 66 percent of holiday parties are held during non-business hours, with only eight percent allowing adult guests and children.

If companies insist on sponsoring the traditional holiday celebration, there are steps employers can take to make the party more appealing to a wider range of employees, decrease the potential for inappropriate behavior and dramatically decrease the liability associated with office parties.

HOW TO SAFEGUARD OFFICE PARTY

- Limit the number of drinks attendees can have by distributing drink tickets.

- Provide wristbands or some other identification to minors as a means of restricting underage drinking.

- Discontinue alcohol at a certain time, or at least turn the open bar into a cash bar

- Provide paid taxi service or have employees volunteer as designated drivers.

- Collect car keys before the party and return them only to sober guests. Provide hotel rooms for those who cannot drive.

- Hire a caterer or professional bartender to serve drinks. - Invite spouses, to encourage employees to be on their best behavior.

- Distribute policy and behavior expectations in advance

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