Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/2/2007 8:25:43 PM ET 2007-12-03T01:25:43

A senior executive was accused of sexually assaulting a subordinate when they shared a cab ride home from a holiday party. That led to sexual harassment charges.

At another office bash, a female employee who was a bit tipsy flirted with a fellow male worker while he was dancing with his wife. The wife wanted to sue the company for harassment.

Oh, the holiday party — inhibitions go out the window after work hours as the free food and booze flow. Employers bring workers together to celebrate the jolly season, but they’re also hanging up mistletoe, metaphorically speaking.

And company lawyers just sit back and wait for their phones to ring after the partying ends.

Take Andrew Bernstein, a partner with law firm Dreier LLP. He typically gets a dozen phones calls from his clients after the soirees. Each year, he sees several harassment claims, at least one employee firing and many written reprimands. There’s also the hidden repercussion of employees gone wild, the impact on careers long term, he adds.

According to a just-released holiday party survey by career information site Vault.com, nearly 15 percent of those employees surveyed say workers at their firms have either been disciplined or fired because of their actions at a holiday party, while 18 percent say they witnessed their colleagues getting romantic during such events.

“Employees forget they are at a company-sponsored event,” Bernstein explains, adding that it’s not just the rank and file that get into trouble, but often managers.

It’s a delicate workplace balance — letting your hair down, but not too much. We all want to be respected at work. But people work hard every day and they want to enjoy the festivities, maybe flirt a little bit and have fun with their colleagues.

Indeed, about 41 percent of employees said they would flirt back if a co-worker hit on them during a holiday party, according to Tickle.com, an online polling organization that surveyed more than 2,500 site visitors. (Only 3 percent said they would slap the colleague.)

“It’s like that line from "Silence of the Lambs" — ‘People covet what they see every day.’ The boss has his eye on the secretary. The secretary has her eye on a guy in accounting,” explains Marty Wymer, an employment attorney with Baker Hostetler. And then at the holiday party, he says, “they get liquid courage because they had a little bit too much to drink and end up doing things they shouldn’t.”

In the case of the senior executive who supposedly assaulted his employee during the car ride, Bernstein said the case was settled out of court and the employee was compensated monetarily.

As for the disgruntled wife who was angry that a woman was hitting on her husband, she had no claim because she was not an employee of the company, says Wendy Lazerson, a partner with Bingham. The husband could have filed a claim, she adds, but he wasn’t upset over the co-worker’s sexual overtures.

However, the female employee who hit on the husband, grabbing and flirting with him on the dance floor, was given a written reprimand and was told to watch her alcohol consumption during such events.

Unfortunately, mixing carnal desires and the workplace, even at a holiday shindig, could end up biting you on your career derriere.

According to an annual survey conducted by Battalia Winston, an executive search firm, 15 percent of companies said that inappropriate behavior at the holiday party had negatively impacted an employee’s career growth at that organization.

To keep the naughty behavior in check, 58 percent of companies are taking steps this year to limit alcohol consumptions, says Jo Bennett, a partner at the firm. Those steps include everything from closing the bar early to serving lots of food.

For those employees that fear they may still end up with a lampshade on their heads, do some preplanning before you get dressed up in your finest duds and head our for the holiday bash.

Here are some tips on surviving the office holiday party with your career intact.

Bring a date
Paul A. Falzone, CEO of a dating service company that includes eLove and The Right One, says his firm gets lots of calls for people looking to find a match around this time of year, and many are motivated by their company’s holiday party.

“Going stag could be hazardous to you at your company,” he says, because “if you’re a good-looking individual and your boss’ girlfriend is checking you out there are going to be some problems.”

Also, he adds, companies like employees who are stable. and often that translates into being in a secure relationship. ‘If you have one then people don’t think you’re partying all the time and picking up girls. They want someone stable, a family person.”

Stay away from admirers
Often times, workers are aware of colleagues who have shown some interest in them during the year, but alas, the feeling isn’t mutual. In this case, “you’ll want to avoid being alone with that person,” says Ruth Houston, author of “Is He Cheating On You?” “If you see them bobbing and weaving in your direction stay clear of them or stay with a big group.”

You can’t give them any opportunity to make an advance, she explains, “because if you rebuff that person, especially if it’s a boss, it may be bad for your career, or it will at least become an embarrassing situation when you’re back in the office.”

Plan your own after-party
It’s hard to keep your excitement contained around the holiday season, especially when you get all dressed up and head for a work party at a museum or nightclub. (About 75 percent of companies hold their parties offsite, according to Battalia Winston.)

If you’re beside yourself with glee because you’re getting a night out away from the kids or the boob tube, and getting social interaction beyond the daily grind, keep it low-key during your company’s festivities and then plan to meet non-work friends afterwards to really celebrate.

Don’t make a love connection
No matter how much you dig a co-worker or underling at your firm, and no matter how much you think that person digs you, keep your inner cupid on the ground.

A supervisor at a professional services firm was attracted to a secretary in another department, and it seemed the feeling was mutual, recalls Scott Brink, a labor & employment law partner with Jeffer Mangels.

“They both had too much to drink and ended up in each other's arms,” he explains. Upon reflection, she felt he was too aggressive with her and she filed a sexual harassment claim.

“It’s a common holiday party story,” he adds.

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