Companies Hit by Sex Misconduct Target the Dreaded Holiday Party
Employees at Vox Media Inc. aren’t happy about this year’s holiday party. The media company, which employs hundreds of journalists, decided to end its open-bar policy following allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace. In lieu of unlimited drinks, this year’s festivities will be heavy on hors d’oeuvres. “Don’t want to miss out on the more food,” one employee whined in a message to co-workers.
Emotions among three Vox staffers, all of whom requested anonymity, ranged from annoyance to grudging acceptance. A few felt the drink limit unfairly punished everyone. Another felt babied, arguing that alcohol isn’t the root of sexual harassment and treating it as such sends the wrong message about whether the company is serious about fixing the real problem.
As sex misconduct allegations ripple across industries, companies are starting to reckon with how the workplace allows, or enables, inappropriate behavior. That means not only looking at structural issues, such as human resource departments and sexual harassment training, but scrutinizing routine work events. And since it’s that time of year, the annual festivities have left a lot of employers struggling with what to do about this fraught holiday tradition.
A survey of a dozen organizations that have ousted employees for sexual misconduct in the past year revealed that Vox isn’t the only one to have changed things. The dangerous cauldron that is the company party has been around for decades, and companies have moved slowly over time to protect employees, and themselves, better. This year, a lot of them have quickened their pace.
Uber, which in 2015 made a huge splash by renting an entire San Francisco pier, said it canceled its holiday party this year. The company has been the subject of widespread reports of sexism. Before a previous company party, Uber’s founder and chief executive officer, Travis Kalanick, wrote a memo to employees outlining how they should go about having sex with each other.
At the more staid end of the spectrum, upper management at NPR—which was also swept up in the scandals—considered canceling its annual potluck soirée but ended up going ahead anyway, one employee who requested anonymity said. “Plans have not changed for the NPR holiday party,” spokeswoman Isabel Lara said in an emailed statement. “It is a very family-oriented event, staff are encouraged to bring their kids, and there’s a special children's menu and three rooms of children’s activities.”
In previous years, each of the dozen or so dining spots owned by New Orleans-based Besh Restaurant Group had its own holiday party. This year, as the company reels from allegations of harassment by founder John Besh, it decided to consolidate into one event with “limitations on alcohol.” Besh, who has denied any wrongdoing, has since stepped down from the company.
At other companies caught up in the maelstrom, the rank-and-file don’t feel like celebrating anyway. Employees considered boycotting the holiday party at New York public radio station WNYC after news reports of allegations that John Hockenberry engaged in inappropriate behavior while hosting the show, “The Takeaway.” Hockenberry, who publicly apologized, had left the station before the actions were made public. The WNYC party, which had a two-hour open bar, went ahead Tuesday as planned. (WNYC confirmed the party took place but declined further comment.)
For some employers with workers accused of harassment, it’s been business as usual. At Vice, a media outlet known for a loose office culture even before it fired three staffers for alleged misconduct, end-of-year festivities went right ahead, four employees who requested anonymity said. One staffer described a previous soirée where “everyone rushed the bar and started free-pouring their own stuff.” (Vice declined to comment for this story.) The New Republic, which ousted two top editors in the past two months because of sex harassment allegations, hosted a cocktails and hors d’oeuvres party for employees recently. Others touched by the controversy, from Amazon Studios, to DC Comics to labor behemoth AFL-CIO, are also still having parties.
For companies interested in backing away from the punch bowl, toning down work-sponsored events that traditionally involve drinking is one of many ways to start cleaning up corporate culture. At Vox Media, CEO Jim Bankoff sent a companywide email last month outlining plans to mandate anti-harassment training, create tighter policies around alcoholic beverages at functions, and generally ensure that “work events and interactions meet the highest standard of professionalism,” a person familiar with the email said. Fay Sliger, a Vox spokeswoman, declined to comment. For its part, Uber brought in a professor from Harvard University to teach management skills.
Creative Artists Agency canceled its Golden Globe awards party altogether, pledging to use the budget to defray the legal costs incurred by sexual harassment victims. CAA was caught up in the scandal that ignited the current debate. The New York Times, reporting on allegations about film producer Harvey Weinstein, said multiple CAA agents were aware of Weinstein’s behavior toward women while arranging meetings with female clients. (CAA, which declined to comment, later apologized to “any person the agency let down.”)
“Lasting change requires new day-to-day habits,” Richard Lovett, CAA’s president, wrote in a memo he sent to staff on Friday.
But while many companies trip over each other trying to appear responsive to what’s been called a “reckoning,” there’s also a financial imperative. The office holiday party has always caused anxiety because of its potential for liability—the company is generally on the hook if a lawsuit is filed over behavior at a company event.
“Holiday parties have commonly given rise to sexual harassment claims because people are often drinking alcohol and inhibitions are low,” said Karen Elliott, a labor and employment attorney at Eckert Seamans.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that only 68 percent of companies reported throwing parties as recently as 2015, down from 83 percent in 1993, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. The national conversation begun by Harvey Weinstein radically intensified a debate that’s been going on for a while. A survey of 150 human resource managers by HR firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. found that only 48 percent of employers will offer alcohol at holiday parties this year, down from 62 percent in 2016.
But when there are hundreds, if not thousands, of employees to consider, chucking the holiday party isn’t so simple. There has to be something for them look forward to, no? While workers grumble when the annual event is watered down, as at Vox, it turns out employees would actually prefer different perks. Ninety percent of those surveyed by HR service firm Randstad US LP said they would prefer a bonus or extra vacation days to an end-of-year shindig. That same survey found a majority of people also consider holiday parties to be an obligation—showing up just so the boss knows you’re a team player isn’t much fun.
Rather than give up altogether, a few companies this year are attempting a balancing act. For example, New York-based public relations firm Channel V Media usually creates a holiday cocktail for its party. Not this year. The company will provide only Champagne and wine to avoid “high levels of intoxication,” founder Gretel Going said. Also, all office doors will be kept open with the lights on to discourage people from sneaking off. The party ends early—at 10 p.m.—with an after-party at a nearby venue for anyone who wants to stay out.
“This may not prevent bad behavior,” Going said, “but it removes it from our workplace.”
Though a recommended practice among HR experts, such a move off-site doesn’t remove the threat of civil liability if something bad happens. Maybe a return of the holiday bonus is the way to go.