HR Management & Compliance

Q&A: Office Party Do’s and Don’ts in the Era of #MeToo

Office parties have always been a point of concern for HR managers. Between a jovial, casual atmosphere and often the inclusion of alcohol, such events increase the risk of bad behavior.

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I recently spoke with Andrew Rawson, the Cofounder and Chief Learning Officer at Traliant, about this topic.

HR Daily Advisor: Many look forward to their holiday parties at work. HR, however, probably has a different outlook. I imagine that the #MeToo movement has put a particular focus on the holiday party.

Rawson: The #MeToo movement has shed light on many aspects of the workplace. At this time of year, it’s the annual holiday party, which can be a potential minefield for HR. We’ve all heard about or been to holiday parties where a manager or coworker drinks too much and says or does something offensive. What’s changed since #MeToo is a greater awareness of what behaviors may constitute harassment and the consequences for engaging in it—whether it’s at the company holiday party, in the office, or at another work-related event.

HR Daily Advisor: Are employees really at an increased risk of sexual harassment at a party versus during an ordinary workday?

Rawson: I don’t have any data to support that, but experience and common sense tell you that when you bring employees together in a more informal, social setting and add in adult beverages, the mood changes from working to celebrating, which can increase the risk of misconduct. One of the steps that HR can take to manage the risk is to make antiharassment education and training a year-round initiative. So when it’s time for the holiday party, everyone has been engaged in ongoing conversations about workplace harassment and is familiar with the company’s code of conduct and what to do if he or she sees or experiences bad behavior.

HR Daily Advisor: Let’s talk about alcohol. Correlations between alcohol consumption and poor decision-making, particularly when it comes to the realm of sexual harassment, are well-documented. While it may be easy to just say “don’t serve alcohol” at a party, assume that you are addressing workplaces where that isn’t likely to happen. Do you have any specific advice for how companies can navigate alcohol during work parties?

Rawson: Having a written policy about the use of alcohol at work-related events is a good start. Alcohol is prevalent at holiday parties. A recent survey of HR professionals by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that over 53% of companies will be serving alcohol at their holiday party this year—up from 48.5% last year.

A few other tips: Serve plenty of food, offer interesting nonalcoholic drinks, and close the bar at least an hour before the party is over. Some companies issue tickets to limit the number of drinks per person and organize buses or other transportation. Beyond that, remind employees of the company’s alcohol policy in the invitation and other communications. Be creative and send out a short, informal video that covers holiday-party behavior in an engaging way.

HR Daily Advisor: Besides having specific alcohol policies, what else can organizations do to reduce the likelihood of sexual harassment at parties specifically?

Rawson: Managers and the executive team must lead by example. The best education, training, and communications can be undermined with one incident at a holiday party involving the CEO or senior management. Leaders should demonstrate in their words and actions that the organization’s policies and standards of behavior apply to everyone at every level and at all occasions.

HR Daily Advisor: What are some things that organizations should do to reduce overall liability (not just harassment) at company parties?

Rawson: Ensure that everyone is familiar with the organization’s code of conduct and internal complaint procedures and is up to date on training that addresses consensual relationships, different types of harassment and discrimination, and the use of social media—posting party photos and comments can create HR headaches. Also, reinforce the message that policies and laws extend to holiday parties, and any complaints made during or after the event will be promptly addressed.

HR Daily Advisor: What are some things that companies absolutely should not do when it comes to planning a company party?

Rawson: Most companies realize the value of a diverse and inclusive workforce and don’t want to marginalize or exclude anyone or any group, so don’t call it a Christmas party or make it mandatory. And definitely don’t focus activities on drinking or serve unlimited alcohol. Finally, don’t assume everyone will behave professionally. HR shouldn’t be the party police, but you do want to be proactive in communicating holiday party do’s and don’ts and setting the expectation for everyone to celebrate in ways that reflect an inclusive, respectful culture during the holidays and throughout the year.

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