LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Office holiday parties have the potential to go very, very wrong. Your boss, colleagues, booze - often not a great mix. This year, NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports sensitivity is running particularly high in the age of #metoo.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Office holiday functions do serve a legitimate business purpose. They can boost morale and reward workers for jobs well done. Louis Lessig is an employment attorney in Westmont, N.J.
LOUIS LESSIG: In a world where telecommuting and virtual work and the gig economy is structured such that we don't have a whole lot of face time anymore, it's a natural opportunity to get together.
NOGUCHI: But with parties, come occasional mischief. And because holiday parties are still work functions, Lessig says employers are often legally liable even if incidents occur at venues offsite.
LESSIG: When it comes to your small to mid-sized company, there's an awful lot of concern because, certainly, one significant hit for a claim like this could put them out of business.
NOGUCHI: And he says what happens at a party, rarely stays at the party.
LESSIG: Everyone has an iPhone or Android phone, which means everyone can take a picture or video of anything that happens in a moment's notice.
NOGUCHI: Jim Reidy is an employment lawyer based in Manchester, N.H., and hears a fair amount about office holiday parties gone wrong. Last year, the high-profile CEO of a local company kicked things off by hanging mistletoe from the front of his pants belt.
JIM REIDY: And dancing around and making suggestions about, you know, it's the holidays. Can't you see the mistletoe? And making suggestions and so on.
NOGUCHI: This spectacle did not meet his HR department's definition of holiday cheer.
REIDY: His response was I was kidding. Everybody knows I'm kidding. I would never do that. But, you know, what runs contrary to that is the fact that he was hanging mistletoe off of his belt.
NOGUCHI: Reidy says it also put employees in a quandary.
REIDY: They were also a segment of people saying you know, do I say something, and fear for retaliation or being sort of that buzz kill at the party. That's emblematic of why a lot of employers have gotten away from this.
NOGUCHI: Reidy says a lot of his cases sound like scenes from sitcoms.
REIDY: Everything from the misuse of the photocopier for people to take pictures of body parts and send them to others or post them around the office to dancing the forbidden dance was a case that we had.
NOGUCHI: 2017 was a good year for many companies, and they have cash to spend on parties. But Reidy, who surveyed about 40 companies in his area, says, this year, more than half opted to go non-alcoholic at their shindigs. Vox Media fired its editorial director in October for sexual harassment. Earlier this month, the company sent an email to its New York employees saying, instead of an open bar, it would issue two drink tickets for every guest. It changed its policy, Vox said, at many employees' request.
For those serving alcohol, Reidy advises other measures like limiting the length of the party or holding the event during the day and inviting spouses and children. Overall, says Riedy, workplace parties are far tamer than they were during the 1980s and '90s.
REIDY: That said, a lot of employers assume that everybody got it with regard to sex harassment, yet we're still seeing these claims now surface.
NOGUCHI: Mark Spund, an attorney in New York City, says there may be an upside to the heightened concern among employers hosting parties.
MARK SPUND: They are getting much more sensitive to it. We are getting more calls about it. I've advised employers to republish their sexual harassment policy to be given out prior to any holiday party.
NOGUCHI: And that, he says, might make for a lot less eventful morning after. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.
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