Managing Company Holiday Parties to Prevent News Headlines

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In 2016, after making suggestive comments, CEO Greg Blatt left a holiday party for a hotel room, where he knew multiple subordinates were planning to order room service. There, he is accused of assaulting the head of subsidiary Tinder’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Rosette Pambakian, with eyewitnesses present. 

In 2004, Google’s general counsel, David Drummond, reserved a hotel suite for an after-party where he approached at least one woman about dissatisfaction with his marriage. Another time, following a work-related dinner party, he was seen departing with two women. Both events have made and continue to make front page headlines.

Let’s face it: the company holiday party is a notorious setting for things-going-wrong, a deserved reputation. Given the blurred distinctions between “work” and “social” at such events, including offsite locations, hotel rooms, dancing, darkness, and the liberal distribution of alcohol, it shouldn’t be a surprise that people behave badly, or that predators are empowered to move against the less powerful. The greater surprise is that organizations don’t do more to encourage and insist on appropriate behavior, particularly in industries with poor reputations for sexual misconduct, such as entertainment, banking, tech, and media. What’s a company to do?  

1)    Add A “Social Event Behavior Policy” to Your Code of Conduct

Surprisingly, many companies do not clearly state expected professional behaviors for social situations at which the company is represented, including dinners, company holiday parties, conventions and conferences. Companies need to set clear expectations to reduce the likelihood of unethical or illegal activity. Conduct an overhaul of the Code of Conduct.  

The new policy should indicate that while the company encourages people to relax, socialize and have fun, employees should remember that the situation is still a professional one, requiring respectful behavior. Explain that the company has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and intoxication at off-site events and that poor behavior resulting from intoxication may be a firing offense. 

Clearly state that employees should not visit each other’s hotel rooms. Address the power differential: a supervisor or manager requesting violations of policies of a subordinate should be reported. When announcing the explicit standards of conduct and prior to social events and conferences, remind employees of the company’s systems for reporting unprofessional behavior or substance-abuse.   

2)    Consider Cancelling the Company Holiday Party  

Sometimes, the only way to eliminate bad behaviors is to eliminate the event itself. With the broad variety of religious celebrations taking place from November to February, the company holiday party is an opportunity to offend many people. Parties that include spouses and significant others also create pressure on those who are single. Eliminating the holiday party altogether means less expense and more professionalism.

3)    Involve Your Diversity & Inclusion Team from the Start in Planning

Don’t leave your company holiday parties strictly to the party planners. Avoid insensitive mistakes from inappropriate gifts to offensive foods by ensuring you have input from Diversity & Inclusion. 

4)    Downsize the Company Holiday Party

The anonymity of large crowds and strangers encourages risk-takers and predators to act out. Instead of large, splashy, convention-style events, reduce holiday events to a manageable size of 20-30 people. Bad behavior has a harder time hiding when all the people at an event know one other.  

5)   Turn up the Lights

Adverse behaviors emerge under cover of darkness. Review your lighting plan.

6)   Limit the Alcohol

Open bars encourage excessive drinking. Set a beverage limit by giving people bracelets that can be marked by the bartender. 

7)   Eliminate Sexualized Music and/or Dancing

Without tight controls over the DJ’s or band’s music selections, a company can easily find itself in a situation in which explicitly sexual lyrics are broadcast to employees; slow dancing opportunities create awkward, if not illegal experiences. Don’t forget to manage the playlist. 

8)   Discourage After Parties

Clearly state that the organization’s goal is to have one event. Consider holding it on a weeknight when people are less likely to stay out late.

A company holiday party doesn’t need to be a minefield of potential bad or illegal behaviors, but thoughtful organizations should manage it as though it could be.  

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