TORONTO – Heightened awareness of workplace sexual harassment in the wake of recent allegations is leading some Canadian companies to take steps to limit potentially inappropriate behaviour as they plan office holiday parties, some human resources experts say.
Though the days of lavish, no-spouses-allowed bacchanals are largely over, navigating after-hours social time with coworkers can still be tricky, said Shelley Brown, president of Bromelin HR Consulting in Montreal.
“Especially throw some alcohol in there and that can add to the mix of discretionary behaviour, shall we say,” she said.
There has been increased demand for training around sexual harassment and for investigations into specific incidents since the flood of allegations against Hollywood powerhouses such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey began, Brown said.
And while all of the firm’s clients are still planning holiday celebrations, many are also actively working to ensure a respectful environment, she said. Those include nixing the open bar in favour of limited drink tickets, and sending out emails setting out the expectation of “good judgment,” she said.
“That’s more the approach that’s a little bit different this year and I think that employers and probably employees as well are a little more sensitized to this topic because of the media attention that sexual harassment has received,” she said.
For many Ontario companies, that shift began long ago, when the province passed legislation on workplace violence and harassment, said Lynn Brown, managing director of the Toronto-based Brown Consulting Group.
“I think employers said, ‘I don’t really want this liability anymore,'” she said. “So now what I see more typically is people who have holiday lunch parties or they have something that’s quite more sedate in the office, they have it catered, they make sure people have taxis to come home, that kind of thing,” she said.
“It doesn’t foster that type of environment and we would actually recommend that people do that to reduce your risk.”
Blue Link ERP, a Toronto software company, reached out to Brown in planning its holiday party, an evening event held at its offices, its president and CEO Mark Canes said.
The company has traditionally organized alcohol-free daytime holiday parties for its roughly 30 employees and wanted advice on how to serve drinks responsibly, he said.
While drunk driving was the top concern, it also occurred to the company that alcohol “fuels other kinds of bad behaviour,” he said.
“This is the first time we’ve really had to confront the ‘Yeah people are going to be drinking alcohol at a year-end party and it’s on our premises,’ (issue) so we just need to make sure that nobody does anything silly or inappropriate,” he said.
They were told to limit the amount of alcohol served, designate a few people to monitor consumption, check what state people are in as they leave and spell out in the invitation that everyone is expected to behave properly, he said.
Unfortunately, even when a company does everything right, it doesn’t guarantee people will behave appropriately, said Lynn Brown, noting she receives more calls related to sexual harassment after the holiday party season than during the rest of the year..
“The complaints that I get after a holiday party, 99 per cent of the time are going to be sexual harassment. It’s someone who’s had too much to drink who’s been inappropriate,” she said.
Sometimes things take a bad turn after people leave the party and continue drinking elsewhere, particularly if a manager is the one buying, she said. It’s up to employers to make it clear to higher-ups that they can’t cross boundaries even at the after-party, she said.
Office holiday parties are mired with potential social pitfalls even when harassment isn’t an issue, which is one of the reasons many people don’t find them enjoyable, said Dianne Hunnam-Jones, a district director with the staffing company OfficeTeam.
The organization recently commissioned a survey of more than 550 Canadian workers in an office environment and found that fewer than 30 per cent considered the events fun, while slightly more than 20 per cent reported feeling obligated to attend.
“Often it’s a time where people who don’t really know each other are getting together in more of a social setting and it can be uncomfortable,” Hunnam-Jones said.
“It’s different when you have a culture where people want to be together and they look forward to it,” she said. “But I think for the most part, and the statistics show, people are not jumping up and down about it.”