What the ‘Weinstein effect’ is doing to office holiday parties

The era of the booze-fueled office holiday bash appears to be coming to a close — and the watershed Weinstein moment could be to blame.

Firms are scaling back their year-end parties — shrinking budgets, axing alcohol, or even cutting the soirée altogether — as newfound awareness of sexual harassment brings dark ages behavior into the light, according to the annual office holiday party survey by the Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Some 11.3% of employers won’t hold a holiday party this year, up from 4% in 2016. Challenger, Gray & Christmas surveyed 150 human resources professionals in October and November. The firm has been doing the survey since 2007 as a way to track workplace trends.

“It’s really dramatic,” Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, told MarketWatch. Usually when there’s low unemployment and the economy is “chugging along,” companies spread their wealth and expand their year-end parties, he said. But this year the trend is the exact opposite. “There’s no economic reason right now that we see these holiday parties being scaled back, and that’s why we think it could be an anomaly caused by the Weinstein effect,” Challenger said.

Revelations about film producer Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual assaults have sparked a national conversation about workplace harassment, which can sometimes originate at holiday office parties.

After several years of swelling budgets for alcohol at parties as companies sought to attract workers — especially millennials — in a tight labor market, this year marks a reversal, with booze spending on the decline, according to the survey. In 2016, companies served alcohol at an all-time high of 62% of parties, but this year, less than half — 48.7% — will serve drinks, the survey found.

Year-end parties are often breeding grounds for inappropriate behavior. A few moments in a dark corner can create long-term fallout for the victim, the perpetrator and the company, especially if the incident leads to a lawsuit.

Employment attorney Jarad Lucan of the Connecticut-based law firm Shipman & Goodwin, says his firm has fielded frantic phone calls the morning after a holiday party from companies eager for legal guidance after a celebration got out of hand. “We’ve gotten the call before where they say, ‘You’re not going to believe what happened, but this is what happened,’” said Lucan, who represents employers in employment law matters.

Employers also contact Lucan’s firm for tips before holiday parties. His advice: assign one manager to quietly monitor the party and watch for any signs of bad behavior. And use common sense to maintain professionalism. Don’t choose party themes that could be construed as racy. “If you put the word ‘naughty’ before something, it’s probably not going to be appropriate,” Lucan warned.

New York City party planner Maya Kalman, CEO of Swank Productions, says she’s noticed companies clamping down on free-flowing alcohol at parties. “People have definitely been more mindful of the amount of alcohol that they’ve poured down their employees’ throats,” Kalman says. To make sure that drinking doesn’t get out of control, she recommends filling employees’ bellies with plenty of food, especially carbs, and using professional bartenders who know how to gracefully cut off problem drinkers.

She also makes it a point to keep party crowds distracted and entertained, so they don’t resort to alcohol out of boredom, especially at tech startups and millennial-focused companies where drinking games are often part of work culture. “You want to entertain them and you want to keep them busy so they don’t start a small game of beer pong in the corner,” Kalman said.