Holiday Party Scrooges Likely Have Bigger Cultural Problems

Companies can fix any potential risk that inappropriate things will happen at their annual holiday party by regulating what is and isn’t acceptable the rest of the year.
holiday party

‘Tis the season to be jolly. But a lot of companies are fearful that celebrating a little holiday cheer will get some employees on human resources’ naughty list — or worse, in legal hot water.

To this I say your problems are likely bigger than employees drinking too much eggnog and dancing inappropriately in front of the CEO once a year.

Amid the waves of recent sexual harassment allegations involving high-profile corporate and public figures, companies are taking extra caution these days in enforcing their sexual harassment policies — and for good reason. Many corporate HR departments are revisiting their sexual harassment policies and having employees engage in new bouts of training on the topic in an effort to get ahead of any potential problems and reinforce what behavior is and isn’t acceptable at work.

And with the holiday season right around the corner, a lot of that caution is being applied to one of the big events on the corporate calendar: the annual company holiday party.

Indeed, according to a recent survey by employment consulting firm Challenger, Grey & Christmas, 11 percent of the 150 companies it surveyed said they would not have a holiday party this year after throwing one in previous years. That is more than double the number of companies that said they skipped their party last year. It’s also the biggest percentage of firms not having parties since 2010, when most companies nixed their parties for financial reasons after the recession.

Those companies that are having holiday parties this year are going to extra mile to tone them down. As The Wall Street Journal reported this week, to head off potential bad behavior many companies are canceling open bars, getting rid of hard liquor and forgoing nightclub settings for “well-lit or family-friendly venues.” Still others are sending out company memos ahead of time reminding them of what is and isn’t appropriate holiday party behavior.

In my time with Human Capital Media, Talent Economy’s parent company, the annual holiday party has always been something I’ve looked forward to. It’s a great time to get together with co-workers outside of the office, enjoy the holiday season and celebrate everything we accomplished as a company that year. The annual holiday party is also a unique time for us to have some fun. HCM is a small, family-run business, so our parties are usually civil, appropriate and fun.

So it disappointed me a bit to read that so many companies are ditching the annual event or toning them down more so than in years prior.

Certainly I can understand how such events can breed bad behavior. But if you’re the type of company that has to go out of its way to guard against sexual harassment or misconduct at a holiday party by taking away alcohol or changing the type of venue it’s at, what does that say about your company’s culture the other 364 days of the year?

Hear me out. Companies can guard against bad behavior at holiday parties not by pushing out “Do’s and Don’ts” memos the week before but when it hires its people in the first place. To be sure, I’m not that naïve to think it is possible to screen for every little potential future red flag in a prospective employee, but at the same time I feel like most company holiday parties are a direct reflection of its normal everyday culture.

So if you have an annual holiday party that tends to go off the rails and trends into questionable territory, it’s probably likely that this sort of behavior is going on in the office as well, or when employees gather for other out-of-office informal events.

What I’m saying is, you can fix any potential risk that inappropriate things will happen at your company’s holiday party by regulating what is and isn’t acceptable the rest of the year. And you do this not by writing up an exhaustive list of holiday party rules but by creating a culture where “bad behavior” is clearly unacceptable. You do this by regulating your hiring process in the first place. You do this by the behaviors your leaders exhibit every day.

If your company is the type that has a bar in the office and celebrates new client acquisitions with a shot of tequila — yes, I’m sure these companies exist — then, yeah, you might want to write that pre-holiday party memo. Sure, I think cancelling the holiday party to avoid a lawsuit is a good idea.

But if you’re most companies, you should be able to have an open bar at your holiday party and not be fearful that Bob in accounting is going rip shots and take his shirt off. And if that does happen, then maybe you should have fired Bob a long time ago — or better yet, never hired him in the first place.

So for those of you whose companies are having a holiday party this year, have a happy holiday season.

But for leaders who ditched the event in fear that some of the employees you hired won’t behave respectably, or that the corporate culture you created might breed bad behavior at such an event, then that’s on you.

Frank Kalman is managing editor at Talent Economy. To comment, email