The Office Holiday Party Gets Toned Down Amid A National Conversation on Workplace Harrassment
There may be less booze and more daylight at your office holiday party this year.
Some companies are rethinking their year-end celebrations amid a national conversation about sexual harassment. The end result? More lunch-hour parties instead of boozy nighttime affairs, and events with a more limited selection of alcohol. A few have even canceled parties this year, according to firms that track the celebrations.
Chicago employment consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas said that 11 percent of the 150 companies it surveyed nationwide will not have a holiday party this year after throwing one in previous years. That’s more than double the number that skipped them last year. It’s also the biggest percentage of companies not having parties since 2010, when a quarter of companies surveyed nixed their celebrations during the height of the recession.
Companies are also less likely to serve booze, use expensive outside services like caterers or extend invitations to nonemployee guests this year, according to the survey, conducted in October and November.
Businesses “want to ensure workers have a safe and happy holiday season, not one marred by a disturbing workplace party experience,” said Andrew Challenger, the consulting firm’s vice president.
Kathleen Jenkins, director of sales and events for Chicago caterer Northern Fork, said there’s been a “little less” demand this year, and fewer bookings for alcohol-focused parties. Instead, more companies are opting for lunchtime holiday celebrations at the office.
Jenkins said she doesn’t know if these trends are entirely due to heightened awareness of sexual harassment. In recent years, as workplaces have become more comfortable environments with vast amenities, businesses have increasingly held their parties at the office. Jenkins also believes that younger workers prefer to avoid the pomp and circumstance of a huge off-site event.
“Millennials don’t want to go out to dinner with their boss,” she said.
Dale Winston, CEO of Battalia Winston, an executive search firm that also tracks holiday parties, agrees that the days of lavish affairs with ice sculptures, flowing champagne and caviar are not coming back.
“The parties where people are putting lampshades on their head, dancing on tables, don’t happen anymore,” she said.
Parties are now a lunch affair, because employees with long commutes don’t want to stick around for a late-night party, she said.
But although the current climate may temporarily change holiday party traditions, Winston doesn’t think companies will phase out holiday parties in large numbers because of the growing significance such events have for employees.
“The workplace is very different today. We have fewer people doing more. The last vestige of social interaction is the holiday party,” she said. “The summer picnic and things like that, they just don’t exist any longer.”
For Tom Gimbel, CEO of staffing agency LaSalle Network, scrapping his firm’s annual holiday event — a lavish affair with nearly 1,000 invitees — wasn’t an option.
“I’m not naive (about workplace sexual harassment concerns), but not once did I think about not having a holiday party,” he said.
Gimbel said the company has measures in place to prevent workplace harassment, but that even the toughest sexual harassment policies can’t prevent every bad situation.
“Companies are a microcosm of society. You can’t be a huge company and not have people that make mistakes,” he said. “The question is how you correct the problem.”
LaSalle Network, which has about 200 employees, opens its holiday parties to clients and other guests.
“I believe that today, the holiday party is one of the best things that companies do” to forge a “healthy and fun work environment,” Gimbel said. “Nobody wants to hire people that make bad decisions, but if you cancel a party to punish the few, you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”
Nicholas Pearce, clinical associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University, said companies that cancel holiday parties in the wake of high-profile sexual harassment claims may send a message that they were not vigilant enough before the issue became a topic of public discussion.
“If companies scale back in the wake of this, it does imply that sexual harassment at the holiday celebration was permitted in the past,” he said. “Making changes in the holiday party but not changing policy sends the wrong signal.”
At the same time, Pearce says current awareness of workplace sexual harassment could put party attendees on their best behavior. “I think the vigilance and self-awareness that individuals will have regarding this issue may change the environment,” he said, adding that the public conversation may have the biggest impact on bystanders, giving observers the courage to speak up about inappropriate behavior.
“This is not just about lawsuits and staying out of the media,” he said. “This is about creating an environment where people of all kinds can be their best.”