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How 'the Weinstein effect' is influencing office holiday parties

  • Some companies are scaling back the office holiday party, or canceling it altogether, amid headlines over sexual harassment allegations.
  • "Employers are currently very wary of creating an environment where inappropriate contact between employees could occur," said Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Company holiday party
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The office holiday party may be a quieter event this year.

Ever since the New York Times and the New Yorker published articles chronicling allegations of sexual assault and harassment against film producer Harvey Weinstein, more and more women are coming forward with their own stories of abuse by people in power. These headlines are causing a shift in the workplace — and at company holiday parties.

"Holiday celebrations are going to feel a little different this year in many organizations," said Nicholas Pearce, a clinical professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. "More people will be paying attention to their behavior.

"Individuals who've been passive bystanders will have more courage to speak up, even by those powerful in the organization," he added.

Changes to the annual party are already evident. Challenger, Grey & Christmas, an outplacement consulting firm, conducted a holiday party survey of 150 human resource representatives, titled, "Is the 'Weinstein effect' causing companies to curtail celebrations?"

Roughly 1 in 10 employers will not hold a holiday party this year, after holding them in the past, the survey found. Less than half of employers (47.8 percent) will provide alcohol at their holiday parties this year, down from 62 percent in 2016.

"Employers are currently very wary of creating an environment where inappropriate contact between employees could occur," said Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

"The holiday party is only revealing what is more than likely happening behind closed doors." -Nicholas Pearce, Northwestern University

A month after Vox Media fired its editorial director Lockhart Steele amid allegations of sexual harassment, the company sent employees "a note on alcohol this year," according to HuffPost. Vox's holiday party, the email said, will "cut down on the drinks" by eliminating the open bar.

"We recognize that even though alcohol isn't always the reason for unprofessional behavior, creating an environment that encourages overconsumption clearly contributes to it," it read.

Attorneys say holiday parties have long been a source of problems. During the holiday season, Marjorie Mesidor, a workplace discrimination attorney at Phillips & Associates in New York, finds an increase of sexual harassment cases across her desk.

"This time of year is busy," Mesidor said. "This is when the office culture is taken out of the four walls of the office."

Mesidor recalled one particularity disturbing incident when a woman became drunk at a holiday party and her boss offered to take her home. The woman awoke to him assaulting her in a hotel room.

"It's usually a turning point for those who've been harassing an employee verbally," Mesidor said. "Now it's time for them to up the ante."

Brian Heller, a partner in Schwartz Perry & Heller, a New York employment law firm, also said that holiday parties could be a risky occasion.

"We have a number of cases where there was an incident at a holiday party," Heller said. "You're in a more relaxed environment.

"You're seeing people on a more personal level," he added. "People can cross lines they wouldn't cross if they were in the cubicle."

"Employers are currently very wary of creating an environment where inappropriate contact between employees could occur." -Andrew Challenger, Challenger, Gray & Christmas

But Pearce at Northwestern University said that efforts focusing solely on the party are "window dressing."

"People get mistreated all day long, when there's no alcohol," Pearce said. "The holiday party is only revealing what is more than likely happening behind closed doors."

Matt Britton, CEO of marketing tech company Crowdtap, agreed that employers need to pay attention to what goes on in their office every day.

"If you look at all the stories coming out, it's not always at parties," Britton said. "You need to have a culture that respects women."

But, he said, you can't ignore the added potential for problems at parties. "More alcohol equals more risk," Britton said.

This year, Britton is throwing his company's holiday party at a bowling alley, where, he said, "drinking is not at the center of the activity."