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posted: 12/17/2017 7:21 AM

No booze at your office holiday party? Call it the 'Weinstein effect'

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  • As American traditions go, the office holiday party is decidedly odd: It's a collegial, company-sponsored get-together with free-flowing booze. "Let loose a little!" an off-site setting can imply. But also, the invites suggest, "Decline at your own career peril."

    As American traditions go, the office holiday party is decidedly odd: It's a collegial, company-sponsored get-together with free-flowing booze. "Let loose a little!" an off-site setting can imply. But also, the invites suggest, "Decline at your own career peril."
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This year, you could arrive at your company holiday party to find a woman from human resources distributing drink tickets, two per head, as if it's communist Russia and we're rationing trash red wine now.

Of course, you shouldn't be surprised. Not in the era of Harvey Weinstein.

Weinstein and the tidal wave of other bad men accused of sexual harassment and assault have cast a long, dark shadow over the American workplace. As party season descends, companies are nervously wondering whether any of us can truly come together and drink spiked eggnog without someone who means to pat a colleague on the back accidentally putting his hands inside her blouse instead. (Which happened to Garrison Keillor. Even though it's impossible. Right, ladies?)

Weinstein and all the others -- so, so many others -- are why corporate clients of all sizes have been calling Tracy Billows, a Chicago-based labor and employment lawyer specializing in sexual harassment. Their questions: "Should I have a holiday party? Alcohol or no alcohol? Spouses or no spouses?"

Don't cancel outright, she's telling them, but set a respectful tone. And yeah, bring the partner. Nothing like the evil eye from the S.O. to keep a harasser in check.

Still, many companies have already decided that the endless whiskey-filled well of the open bar, that mainstay of the corporate shindig, has finally dried up.

That's what human resources staffers said in a poll conducted this fall by placement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas -- in the midst of Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and Al Franken and Louis C.K. et al.

Only 48 percent of companies said they planned to serve alcohol at their soirees. That's compared with 62 percent last year.

That's if they were having a party at all.

This year, 11.3 percent said "Pass" to a holiday event. Last year, only 4 percent skipped it.

After conducting the poll for 10 years, vice president Andrew Challenger was caught off guard by this year's responses. "When unemployment is low, when the economy is moving at a good pace," he says, companies are more likely to have holiday parties, spend more on them and offer more alcohol.

What else could the new booze-free approach reflect, Challenger wonders, but "the Weinstein Effect?"

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As American traditions go, the office holiday party is decidedly odd: It's a collegial, company-sponsored get-together with free-flowing vodka.

"Let loose a little!" an off-site setting can imply. But also, the invites suggest, "Decline at your own career peril."

Can any good come of this?

"The holiday function is supposed to be the unifying event of the year, for jobs well done. It's also supposed to be a morale boost for the employees," says Ross J. Peters, who specializes in sexual harassment at his llinois-based employment law firm.

And yet. All the booze and informality add up to scenarios where employees and management can misplace their moral compasses.

"Sometimes, men feel it's an opportunity to make themselves more familiar in a party atmosphere. Harassers use it for intimate conversation," says Peters, frustration creeping into his voice. "You should not be asking about people's boyfriends or girlfriends!"

"People tend to feel more comfortable away from the workplace," adds Billows. The lines are blurred, and management and employees begin to convince themselves, "'I'm at a social gathering. The rules don't apply anymore.'"

Which is why the office holiday party-related cases have stacked up for Peters, who represents harassment victims. Over the years, he has had a case of servers working a company event who found themselves groped by partygoers while passing the canapes.

"I've had cases," he says, "where men said, 'That outfit makes your (we'll allow you, dear reader, to fill in this blank) look great.' "

The worst case of all? An alleged rape.

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Attention, employers: This did not begin in 2017.

Peters says the cases he has worked in his decades practicing in the field have proved how rampant harassment is. For him, the scandals of the past year show only that "sexual harassment has finally taken its place in social discourse."

Not that everyone has learned the lessons of the past months.

Bloomberg reports that in Silicon Valley, where Uber endured an ugly avalanche of sexual-harassment firings this year, some unnamed tech companies are actually hiring models to attend their holiday parties and bring cheer to the mostly male staffs. (One agency said that a client asked for those models to wear "Pink Panther-themed latex bodysuits.")

Bad behavior at office holiday parties is so pervasive that Hollywood -- home of Harvey Weinstein -- has long had a field day depicting the debauchery.

A Christmas episode of "Mad Men" featured the slick New York ad execs and their nubile young secretaries mingling on a smoky, boozy night involving Santa hats, a conga line and cringe-worthy boss-secretary sexual high jinks. One particularly cruel attendee forced underlings to sit on Santa's lap and then kept the photographic evidence.

Then there's the 2016 Jennifer Aniston movie, actually called "Office Christmas Party," in which a "nondenominational mixer" at a Chicago firm becomes a frat-house rager, complete with this mid-party announcement: "If you are going to have intercourse tonight, please do not do it on company property. Go into the Rite-Aid parking lot!"

Perhaps a lawyer can offer a better way to phrase that.

A company statement, pithy but firm, just before the festivities is actually a very smart idea, says Peters. He suggests: "There is zero tolerance for sexual harassment. Zero. Zero. Zero." (Got it?)

And if it happens? "They have to fire that person," he says. "That's the only thing a harasser will understand. It's got to cost him his job."

Some companies are already making substantial changes.

Media company Vox, which recently fired its editorial director over sexual harassment accusations, informed employees that they would receive just two drink tickets a person at the company party this week. Any further imbibing would be of the nonalcoholic variety.

"We recognize that even though alcohol isn't always the reason for unprofessional behavior," a leaked internal memo cheerily noted, "creating an environment that encourages overconsumption certainly contributes to it."

OK, we've gotten that ugly stuff out of the way. Now, who's ready to party?