Navigating holiday parties with #MeToo in mind

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Ronda Wakefield

For many organizations, the annual company Christmas party is the biggest event of the year. The budget is large, fun is the name of the game, it’s an opportunity for celebration and fellowship between employees, and it’s one project that most employees don’t mind being a part of.

For the majority of the businesses in the Flathead Valley, it often means employees and their guests joining their coworkers for a nice meal, adult beverages and a white elephant gift exchange outside of the office. Unfortunately, taking the gathering outside of the office tends to take the “workplace” vibe away, only to have the long-term memory replaced with indiscretions and shenanigans that can have an even bigger, more expensive, and longer lasting impact with a negative impact.

Times are changing quickly. Many organizations are restructuring the event or canceling festivities all together and replacing it with a lunch-room potluck. What happened? The economy continues to grow, budgets are fattening, it can’t be economic, can it?

Does #MeToo play a role? Undoubtedly, it does. In general terms, #MeToo is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault.

The 2016 comedy, “Office Christmas Party,” grossed $114.5 million and will more than likely become as much of an adult holiday movie tradition as “The Griswolds.” Human-resource professionals around the world, myself included, didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp as the sex, drugs and illegal activities flowed freely in the movie in an effort to win over a new client. If your company is taking your party to the next level this year and plans to do some “rockin’ around the Christmas tree,” here are a few best practices to keep your gross profit just that — profit — rather than a legal judgment.

• Workplace policies still apply. Just because the event is out of the workplace, it is still a company-sponsored event; organizational policies such as workplace conduct and harassment, workplace dress code and social medial policies apply. Many employees see the annual event as an opportunity to let their hair down, lighten up and socialize in a manner that may not be acceptable in the workplace. Inappropriate and offensive behavior such as foul language or joke telling is heard around the punch bowl, inappropriate or suggestive dress is likely to catch everyone’s eye and spark whispers and unwanted conduct, often sexual in nature, and violations of the law are even a possibility. Workplace conflicts don’t pause for the holidays and a large, loosely monitored event is a great place for things to heat up. And don’t forget, what happens at the Christmas party ends up on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

• Control the adult beverages. Your organization’s stand on alcohol at company functions can eliminate or exaggerate risk. In my experience, planning the menu for the event is the hardest part, you’ll never make everyone happy and the “free food and booze” is often the highlight. Add alcohol and it tends to take the event to the next level, it’s all fun and games until someone spikes the punch or has a little too much eggnog, right? Alcohol lowers inhibitions and increases the likelihood of unwanted sexual advances and inappropriate behavior, it also increases the liability for your company. If you are going to allow alcohol at the event, limit the allowable consumption. Consider issuing drink tickets or vouchers, eliminate hard liquor, shut down the bar early in the night, and always have a “safe ride” available. It’s also recommended that you check with your insurance carrier to see if there are any alcohol-related exclusions in your policy.

• Attendance optional. At the end of the day, there are always going to be a few employees who prefer not to attend. The choice could be a for variety of reasons including religion, schedule conflicts, location, lack of childcare, conflicts between coworkers, and the list goes on. It might be as blatant as he/she not wanting to spend their off time with their coworkers, after all, they spend 40-plus hours per week together as it is. It is important to stress that attendance is optional and there will be no retaliation or negative impact for not attending.

• It starts at the top. #MeToo isn’t the cause of company gatherings getting canceled or downgraded, your organizational culture is the determining factor. The behavior at your holiday party is more than likely a reflection of your company culture. It’s also common to point to HR when employee behavior goes awry. Creating a culture of civility, respect, inclusion, safety, and acceptance is everyone’s responsibility. Business owners want to believe that their staff knows the rules and wouldn’t ever overstep bounds or act inappropriately, don’t assume you are immune from a complaint or incident. Unfortunately that’s not true, evidenced by the 12 percent jump in sexual-harassment claims filed with the EEOC between 2017 and 2018. Management at all levels needs to watch and monitor behaviors, always responding accordingly.

More work environments are becoming increasingly litigious. In order to limit the risk and liability for your company during the most wonderful time of the year, clearly outline the expectations for behavior sooner than later. To minimize risk and set the stage, remind your employees of workplace policies and organizational values regularly prior to the event through every means possible: payroll stuffers, bulletin board notifications, announcements at company meetings, and yes, even on the closed group employee Facebook page.

Ronda Wakefield is the owner of NW MT HR Solutions, a human resource consulting firm.

that provides remote flexible and customized HR solutions and services to employers across Montana. She can be reached at nwmthrsolutionsllc.com.

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