Beware of the Holiday Parties

            Since the pandemic started, I have noticed, unsurprisingly, that I am receiving fewer calls from folks about sexual harassment and sex discrimination at work. With more folks working remotely, the incidents of harassment in the workplace would necessarily have to decrease.

            You put people together in a room, and disputes are going to arise. It is human nature. Let them work remotely from their own comfortable spaces, though, and more work gets done while less drama ensues. This might be bad for my business, but it certainly is preferable for almost everybody else, so I’ll go along with it.

            Nevertheless, the gift that keeps on giving to guys like me is arriving soon enough. That’s right, holiday party season is upon us. And that means that the drinks will be flowing and bad behavior will soon follow.

            So if you are an employer that will be hosting a holiday party over the next several weeks, you need to keep some important considerations in mind. Holiday parties can be fertile ground for litigation, especially if the alcohol starts flowing.

            I hate to be a wet blanket, but if you want to make sure that matters do not get out of hand, the best way to celebrate a year of successes is to do it without any liquor. The inhibitions that are lifted by a few drinks can often lead to harassing behavior, even from the best of employees.

            When folks are in a celebratory mood and feeling good after a bit of lubrication, simple gestures of friendliness can escalate into unacceptable forms of unwanted touching. That is bad for employees and bad for business. Cut out the booze and you likely eliminate the potential for people feeling harassed or violated.

            In my years I have also received complaints from employees who were intentionally left off the guest list of a party. These folks have felt that the brush-off was discriminatory because of age or gender, or was done to retaliate for something that might have occurred earlier in the year. Even if the exclusion does not lead to a legal action, it can help build resentments within the company and lead to poor performance down the road or significant distraction in operations at some point in the future.

            If there is going to be a celebration, everyone should be invited. This isn’t a charity gala for big donors. It is a preschool birthday party. Everybody is welcome – even the crayon-eaters.

            Finally, there is the issue of gift-giving. Often people like to say their workplace is like a family. It is so true. Families are full of estrangements, jealousies, resentments, and long memories. Why would you want to bring that into the workplace? And why would you want to exacerbate all of it with gift-giving that leaves some feeling undervalued, misunderstood, or invisible.

            I have never been a believer in the “Secret Santa” tradition. It is like a raffle. Some folks bring home the big-screen television. Others get a gift certificate to the dry cleaner two towns over.

            Bring that into the workplace, and most folks are underwhelmed.

            If you’re going to celebrate, do it low-key and celebrate the company’s successes with a simple dinner (making room for food allergies) and perhaps a small, equal bonus for everyone. Then send everyone home to enjoy the holidays with their families.

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