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CEOs are axing holiday bashes because of #MeToo, but the party isn't the problem

Killing the office party isn't the cure for bad behavior.
New Years Eve in a bar between group of coworkers and colleagues
Fewer businesses are having a celebration this year than last.manonallard / Getty Images

We’re less than a week away from Christmas day, which means it’s now or never for that holiday office bash. Time to get down with our co-workers and maybe even get a little rowdy on the dance floor, right? Wrong. As awareness around sexual misconduct in the workplace heightens, companies are taking precautions to help ensure that nobody takes it too far by either limiting alcohol at the annual soirée, or pulling the plug on the party altogether.

The 2017 Holiday Party Survey Report by HR and outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. found that considerably fewer businesses are having a celebration this year than last (4.0 percent in 2016 passed on the bash, versus 11.3 percent this year). Those that are carrying on with the tradition may be leaning toward a sober affair, with 48.7 percent saying they’ll serve booze — down from 61.9 percent last year. In a bullish economy with a tight labor market, it’s not money that’s holding bosses back, it’s concern over bad employee behavior amid the #metoo movement. It all begs the questions: What will canceling a party or restricting alcohol actually solve, and how can companies really create positive change?

Harassment Is A Year-Round Problem

In and of itself, this bah humbug attitude toward office parties won’t do anything to fix the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s just one night, after all, and it looks more fearful than brave. But if CEOs do genuinely care about this sexual harassment reckoning, as it were, they’ll put an effort into holding themselves accountable all year round. And they won’t merely police staff like high school principals at prom; they’ll offer interactive training for employees and give them refreshers on a regular basis.

“We don't want this to just be something people are talking about now as a trend, but something that they understand as an ongoing obligation,” says employment lawyer Mirande Valbrune. “I recommend to my clients that they remind employees of the sexual harassment policy at least twice a year, but preferably on a quarterly basis.”

Harassment Isn't Just Boozy Antics; It’s Also Subtle Power Play

What all employers (and for that matter, employees) need to understand is that sexual harassment can not only be invasive, boundary-crossing moves on the holiday party dance floor, it can also sneaky, private power plays behind closed doors. Valbrune advocates for “in-person training where there is opportunity for live interaction and role play scenarios. There needs to be awareness raised amongst participants about the nuances [of sexual harassment]. Some situations don't have an easy answer; sometimes people don’t always know what should and should not be done.”

Web training programs where employees can ask questions and present ideas are also encouraged by Valbrune. But again it’s crucial that this training be ongoing, and not a one-time thing.

The Best Example Is Set From The Top, But Limiting the Booze Isn’t Such aBad Thing

“All the best training and policy in the world won't work if you don’t set a good example of leadership from the top,” says Valbrune. So, if you’re a CEO who has decided to nix or place restrictions on an office party in order to keep everybody in order, remember that they’re following your and your fellow executives’ lead. If you’ve endorsed or overlooked harassment in the past, capping cosmos at a holiday hoedown isn’t going to help (or dissuade) anybody.

That said, it’s not a bad idea to limit the amount of drinking that goes on if only because fun as it should be, this is a work event, and this is company time. Plus, some people are really annoying when they’re wasted.

“There should be no open bar and limited access to alcohol during events to discourage the loss of inhibitions which may lead to behavior which makes others feel uncomfortable,” adds Valbrune. “The use of a ticket system is one way of limiting the number of drinks served to individuals. An additional method is only serving alcohol for a very limited time, i.e. the first hour. Sufficient food to limit the effect of the alcohol should also be served throughout the event. The bartender and/or other designees can be made responsible for monitoring.”

Consider a Day Out of The Office That Has Positive Meaning

If a holiday party just isn’t going to happen, there are other, potentially more meaningful ways to bring joy and show appreciation to your team. Jeff Kear, co-founder of the online event management software Planning Pod, shares one refreshing trend he’s seeing this year.

“Many companies are opting to team with a local charitable organization and have employees spend an afternoon assisting that charity in its mission, whether it be serving hot meals at a shelter to packing boxes for a food bank,” says Kear, adding that the company has around 1,400 customers and 20,000 users. “This not only places the focus of the party back on giving to others, but it also helps build team unity around a very worthwhile cause.”

And if you really want to embrace the message of #metoo (and show that you are listening and helping create change), consider a charity that is focused on helping victims of domestic violence and sexual assault such as RAINN or the NSVRC. And if you’re looking for some local volunteering opportunities, a quick search on Charity Navigator should do the trick.


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