The mass shooting at a staff holiday party in San Bernardino has raised concerns among those charged with planning workplace events, making clear that the risks associated with such gatherings extend far beyond Bob from accounting having too much to drink.
“With holiday parties, I think we forget about normal security,” said Joan Eisenstodt, a meeting planner in Washington, D.C. “We take our safety for granted.”
While it remains unclear whether workplace issues had anything to do with Wednesday’s attack on a holiday gathering for employees of the San Bernardino County Health Department, event planners predict that some employers might implement enhanced security measures at similar work-related events in the future.
Ken Wheatley, founder and principal consultant of Royal Security Group LLC, a company that provides security for meetings and events, said the phones were ringing at his company even prior to the shooting.
“I have been getting calls from planners,” he said, noting that recent terrorist attacks in Paris already had increased nervousness among event organizers. “I am seeing a renewed sensitivity to the realities of the global community.”
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But Eisenstodt, the Washington, D.C., meeting planner, said she doubts that additional security measures would have much impact in a scenario similar to the deadly attack allegedly carried out by Syed Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, which left 14 people dead – many of them Farook’s coworkers – and 21 wounded.
“I think that people may add security guards,” she said, noting that most of them would probably be unarmed, which could limit their effectiveness. “I honestly don’t think in San Bernardino that anything could have stopped this.”
Wheatley agreed that mitigating the risk of attacks like the one that happened in San Bernardino is incredibly hard because even rigorous security and screening protocols typically wouldn’t apply to an employee.
“The issues in this case, especially — this is a known individual versus a stranger or an outsider coming into the event,” he said.
Despite these concerns, industry professionals don’t predict mass cancellations or postponements of scheduled holiday activities, arguing that the morale-building benefits of a holiday party outweigh the worry.
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“It’s one of the last socializations left in corporate America,” said Dale Winston, chairwoman and CEO of executive search firm Battalia Winston.
“One of the key factors that ties people to the workplace are having real friendships at work,” said John Challenger, CEO of executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Not only are parties an important way to thank people… but they also build friendship and bonds that companies value highly.”
In an increasingly polarized world, though, human resources experts say holiday parties require employers to balance the needs and sensitivities of an increasingly diverse workforce.
“We have become a much more inclusive country. At the same time, it’s very divisive,” Winston said.
While some employers and employees would prefer that holiday gatherings have some religious connection -- as the recent dust-up over Starbucks’ holiday cup illustrates -- experts say that companies can’t risk alienating workers of different faiths if they want to stay competitive.
“There are those fault lines in our society, and they get reflected or they manifest themselves in the workplace like in any other community,” Challenger said. “Companies do have a vested interest in listening to those voices but not letting them rule the day because they want to attract and retain talent.”