Mischief Under The Mistletoe: Office Partygoers Behaving Badly Partying with co-workers can lead to awkwardness and worse. And, HR experts say, alcohol is often to blame. "If people used common sense, I wouldn't have a job," says employment attorney Jon Hyman.
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Mischief Under The Mistletoe: Office Partygoers Behaving Badly

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Mischief Under The Mistletoe: Office Partygoers Behaving Badly

Mischief Under The Mistletoe: Office Partygoers Behaving Badly

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You may call it the Christmas season.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Or the holiday season.

INSKEEP: But for some people, it's the office party season. And some holiday office parties get out of control.

GREENE: Yeah, you remind me of that NPR party where somebody spilled an entire glass of red wine on my back.

INSKEEP: Sounds bad, but the people talking with NPR's Yuki Noguchi have stories worse than that.

YUKI NOGUCHI: This time of year, Minneapolis attorney Kate Bischoff is a busy woman.

KATE BISCHOFF: I often represent clients who are handling the aftermath of a holiday party when it has gone off the rails.

NOGUCHI: Including, but not limited to, bosses hitting on interns or a case when a manager gave a direct report a sexually explicit gift - as a joke, perhaps, but one that resulted in a harassment claim.

BISCHOFF: It was not even close to the line. This manager jumped over the line with gusto.

NOGUCHI: And then, there was the case that involved a manager's idea of an after party.

BISCHOFF: He took his team across the street to a different venue where there was some exotic dancing. And in certain circumstances, employees don't feel they can say no to their boss.

NOGUCHI: Bischoff says meeting out alcohol at parties using vouchers can limit some liability at the office holiday shindig. It helps also to remind employees of basic judgment and rules of conduct - not that it will necessarily be heeded.

JON HYMAN: If people used common sense, I wouldn't have a job.

NOGUCHI: That's Jon Hyman, a Cleveland employment attorney who also handles holiday party cleanup. And he has his own experiences with office holiday mishaps.

HYMAN: Coworkers passed out on toilets with a bottle of whiskey between their legs, I've seen stuff stolen from restaurants by people who had too much to drink, you know, art lifted right off the walls.

NOGUCHI: Hyman recently tweeted about another holiday memory from his student days working at a T-shirt warehouse. His coworker took maximum advantage, first of the open bar, then the dance floor and, eventually, the CEO's wife.

HYMAN: He actually stripped down to his underwear. When I originally wrote the tweet, I wrote grinded with. But, I mean, she was not a willing participant. It was grinding on the CEO's wife. And that was his last day working at the company.

NOGUCHI: Hyman froze as colleagues pried the man off the boss's wife.

HYMAN: I was dumbfounded. I didn't know how to react or what to do.

NOGUCHI: Freada Kapor Klein is an expert on human resources and sexual harassment. She says almost always it's the booze that makes baseline workplace dysfunction combustible.

FREADA KAPOR KLEIN: So we have alcohol-fueled problems, be they racial bias, be they sexual harassment, be they intolerance or stereotyping. Whatever's underlying in the company culture already just gets completely amplified.

NOGUCHI: Amy Maingault is a director at the Society for Human Resource Management. She says company culture may not always be the root cause. She says sometimes, individuals just act badly. But she agrees alcohol can turn small problems into big ones fast. And it creates other legal liabilities for employers.

AMY MAINGAULT: If the employer is serving alcohol and they're the people paying for the alcohol, they do incur some liability if that person causes injury to themselves or to others driving home after the party.

NOGUCHI: Of course, not all regrettable party incidents result in lawsuits or investigations. Most times, it might just be awkward coming to work the next day. Take Stephen Larrick. Three years ago, he was a new college grad working at City Hall in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Larrick did stand-up comedy in college, so his boss insisted he roast everyone at the holiday party. He demurred. The boss insisted. And he ended up on stage before about a hundred municipal employees.

STEPHEN LARRICK: They introduced me as Steve from the planning department.

NOGUCHI: Larrick dug for material about people he hardly knew and who didn't know him.

LARRICK: So our director of public works is here. I don't know if everyone knows this, but the director is a bit of a neat freak. Yeah, he's such a neat freak, he's even considering cleaning up the city. Boom - fell flat. I'm standing up there and (laughter) - and feeling very awkward in front of a bunch of colleagues.

NOGUCHI: In this instance, Larrick says alcohol actually helped - that and a shared sense of helplessness.

LARRICK: We were all kind of in the awkward together.

NOGUCHI: Larrick made it back to work the next day. In fact, he's now a manager and plans to attend the office party again this year - this time, no stand-up. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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