Beware The Office Holiday Party

This originally appeared on The Guardian. Republished here with permission.

If businesses want to be friendlier to women, they can start by re-thinking holiday parties, which are often ripe for sexual harassment.

Office parties are the epitome of holiday humbuggery. They provide a platform for management’s year-end rhetoric, which is either self-congratulatory or exculpatory with promises of better days to come. Tolerating this sort of bombast via a memo or a meeting may well be unpleasant, but worst of all, is a holiday party with its forced and usually false joviality. It is the most empty conduit for the annual message of good cheer.

Worse, office parties—especially those lubricated with alcohol—provide rich settings for sexual harassment. Plaintiffs’ lawyers count on these events as a source of business. A 2010 survey done by Adecco, an international human resources firm, found that 40% of respondents had either engaged in inappropriate behavior at such an event or knew someone who had, and 23% were either reprimanded or knew someone who had been. Some of these incidents must have been highly offensive because 11% of the group questioned reported that they or someone they knew had been terminated as a result of the misbehavior.

How bad can it get? After groping a female colleague, one man grabbed her name tag, dropped it into her cleavage then tried to fish it out. However, his misconduct was topped by the man who chased a woman into the lavatory, declaring “he must have” and “he would have her.” He followed these declarations by kissing and fondling her.

Employers have a duty to protect workers from sexual harassment (an unwelcome sexual advance, verbal or physical) in the workplace. Fail that duty and liability may be imposed. The law provides these protections to ensure that a worker’s right to retain his or her job or be considered for a promotion isn’t based on performance of sexual acts. Courts consider company-sponsored holiday parties, regardless of location, part of the workplace and impose liability if sexual harassment occurs there.

Sexual harassment can happen at any holiday party, but my business career has shown me that the more macho the everyday work environment is, the more likely it is that sexual harassment will occur. Law firms, finance/investment banking, venture capital, media and tech companies often ignore workers’ rights to be free of harassment and revel in a “boys’ club” atmosphere.

The old boys who run law and investment banking are typically less creative in their misconduct. Their style would be insisting on a dance that leads to a tighter and tighter embrace, copping feels around the butt and breasts and then a panting suggestion that the couple leave the party and get a room. That possibility jumps to mind quickly if the party is held in a hotel. But any venue and enough booze can prompt the boss to invite his dance partner to go to “my car, take our clothes off, and fool around.”

The younger “boys” find gift exchanges a medium for harassment. I feel for a secretary who allegedly received edible panties from her boss. Other supervisors who were equally lusty, if a bit less crass, have offered up massagers, inflatable dolls, sex manuals, and lingerie.

The employee needs the guts to say no and, if she hopes not to antagonize the boss, a deft way of doing so. My experience has been that humor works best. Here are a couple of my favorite rejoinders to sexual come-ons from the high and mighty:

“I’ll put that in my Title VII file under humor … unless you intended something else.” (If you don’t know it—and Americans should should—Title VII is the federal law prohibiting sexual harassment.)

Raising my cellphone to my ear, I’ll say, “It’s Clarence Thomas. He wants to know how you plan to get away with this.”

How to avoid all this misbehavior? Abolish holiday parties. But until that great day comes, here is what I’d do if I were drafted to organize a holiday party. I’d choose an event at the company’s office during business hours and invite employees’ families. (Spouses can be helpful enforcers.) No alcohol would be served or if company culture dictated otherwise, only beer and wine would be offered. Food would be available. No dancing. No gift exchange and, oh, yes, no mistletoe.

Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Big Law before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which is available on She is an advocate for women and tweets as @K8McGuinness.

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