With recent high-profile sexual harassment cases top of mind for both bosses and workers, experts predict the annual office party will be toned down this year.

With sexual harassment reports making headlines worldwide, some end-of-year office parties are taking on a decidedly sober tone this year.

Companies are reconsidering how to approach rowdy workplace gatherings for fear they may encourage behaviour that could land both employers and employees in trouble. Experts also predict some staff may police their behaviour more than at previous work functions, or skip the party entirely.

Vox Media, a New York-based digital publisher, said there will not be an open bar at its holiday party this year. Instead, according to an internal memo the Huffington Post obtained, it will issue employees two drink tickets each and provide more food. “We recognise that even though alcohol isn’t always the reason for unprofessional behaviour, creating an environment that encourages overconsumption certainly contributes to it,” the report quotes the memo as saying.

Reining it in

Vox isn’t the only company scaling back festivities. In October and November, employment consulting firm Challenger, Grey & Christmas surveyed 150 human resource representatives across the United States about their annual party plans. It found that 11% of employers decided not to host them in 2017, compared with 4% in 2016.

Andrew Challenger, the firm’s vice president of media and business development, says that in years when employment rates are up – as they are in the US – companies go for blowouts. But this year, they found companies budgeted less for their parties than in the previous three years.

Challenger attributes this year’s low-key approach to the news cycle, saying that while HR heads plan holiday parties, they’re also in charge of creating a safe work environment. “There’s no issue weighing on any mind more than all the… sexual harassment stories and allegations we’ve had in the headlines over the last couple of weeks.”

You’re not surrounded by your cubicle walls so you lose track of the fact, sometimes, that you’re at an office event – Edward Yost

The Society for Human Resource Management, a global HR body representing 165 countries, has lately seen an uptick in calls about harassment prevention, according to Edward Yost, the manager of employee relations and development. The reason? The festive atmosphere at office parties often changes workplace dynamics, Yost says.

“You are in such a more relaxed and social environment. You’re not surrounded by your cubicle walls so you lose track of the fact, sometimes, that you’re at an office event.” Workers may also drink more at end-of-year parties than at other functions throughout the year, he says.

This “perfect storm” of excess alcohol and eased inhibitions means the holidays constitute a “rainy season” for employment lawyers, says David Whitten, a partner at the Toronto law firm Whitten & Lublin, who represents both companies and their workers.

This year, he expects more organisations will take extra precautions – reining in drinking, inviting employees to bring their partners and families, refreshing everyone’s memory about the corporate harassment policies. Without protections in place, Whitten says, some employees may engage in inappropriate behaviour.

Skipping it

Faced with the choice between a more rigid work gathering and outsized odds of dealing with a colleague’s inappropriate conduct, many employees might skip the party entirely, says professor Sir Cary Cooper, board president at CIPD, an international body for HR people development.

If they do go, they’ll definitely drink less, watch themselves and try to stay in control – Cary Cooper

“I think some people may not show up. Or they’ll go somewhere with friends who they know and trust. If they do go, they’ll definitely drink less, watch themselves and try to stay in control.”

Cooper suspects that increased awareness around sexual harassment means people’s guards will be up, and speculated that they might naturally police their own conduct out of fear of accidentally upsetting their colleagues. “The woman may be frightened that a man will misinterpret,” he says. “A man might worry that if he shows interest, it will be interpreted as harassment.”

Cooper suggests a more neutral venue or a group outing without alcohol, to encourage team bonding with lower interpersonal risks.

And while foregoing an open bar in favour of drink tickets, or allowing employees to bring their families may make for fewer incidents, SHRM’s Yost argues a single day of restraint can’t be the only solution. Holiday parties aren’t the underlying reason for unseemly behaviour.

“What are you going to do about the other 300-plus days that your people interact with one another in the office?” Yost says. “As an HR professional, I’m not sleeping well the other nights if we’re not doing something else to address that.”

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