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The Office Party: Career Booster or Breaker?

Your employees were hired because they had the right credentials, passed your organization’s background check and never appeared on social media in compromising situations. In general, they’re people you never think you’ll have cause to worry about, that is, until the office party.

Many employees find interacting with bosses and coworkers in a nonwork-related way is a chance to get to know each other as people, and not just as the accountant or the marketing director. However, what employees might forget is that the office party is an employer-sponsored event, and the conduct that’s unacceptable during work hours is unacceptable when they're socializing off the clock.

The Risks for Misconduct

Employees looking to advance their careers know the importance of being sociable. But, as you know, the office party can have hidden risks. Workers sometimes think the casual atmosphere is an opportunity to speak and act out in uninhibited ways that they would normally find more suitable at home or in personal social situations.

The presence of alcohol raises the risk for misconduct. Uncontrolled drinking temporarily impairs thinking and often emboldens unacceptable behavior. Also, inebriated workers are more prone to injuring themselves or someone else. Your organization could be blamed for any damage they might do.

Sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in general are the most frequent complaints associated with the office party. From seemingly mild flirting to physical contact, sexual misconduct is any behavior of a sexual nature that the person targeted says was unwanted. You might need to remind employees that what the alleged harasser thinks of the behavior is irrelevant; if the person feeling harassed makes a complaint, HR has the responsibility to follow up with an investigation. Employees also should know that anyone at the office party who might have witnessed the behavior could be called on to verify the complainant’s claim.

Other misconduct associated with the office party that you want to keep in check includes …

  • Unwanted gift-giving - If a manager, peer or subordinate persists on giving an employee an unwanted gift, the behavior could be considered harassment, possibly sexual harassment.
  • Negative jokes - The informal atmosphere of the office party can become the venue for tasteless jokes based on sex, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion or disability. Such jokes can be a form of harassment and your organization responsible for creating a hostile work environment.
  • Rudeness toward co-workers - Employees sometimes feel they can take out their revenge on another coworker at an informal office gathering. Again, alcohol can embolden their behavior, but rudeness is a form of misconduct and shouldn’t be tolerated.
  • Physical contact - Some people are natural huggers, especially when they meet socially. But you might want to warn employees that a hug could be an innocent gesture to one person, but harassment to another.

The Balance Between Social Enjoyment and Career Destruction

You can reduce office-party risks by …

  • Circulating a “proper conduct” memo or email to remind workers of the organization’s policy on sexual harassment and other misconduct and the consequences for violators.
  • Holding the event immediately after work.
  • Inviting spouses and significant others.
  • Shortening the event’s length to a few hours.
  • Stopping the flow of alcohol after an hour or eliminating it entirely.
  • Arranging transportation from the event through ride-hailing companies like Uber or Lyft, or appointing designated drivers if alcohol is available.
  • Including activities, such as games with prizes, to add enjoyment to the event.

You might want to skip the office party altogether and replace it with other benefits employers prefer. According to a Randstad U.S. study on annual holiday parties, 90 percent of the workers polled said they would prefer to receive bonuses or extra time off instead of attending the employer-sponsored event.

Deb Muller
Deb Muller

Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, the employee relations case management solution that companies trust to help them track, investigate, and analyze employee issues the right way.