Business & Tech

In the age of Weinstein, office holiday parties sober up

Heather Hopp-Bruce/Globe Staff via istockphoto

This probably isn’t the year for mistletoe and an open bar.

With new allegations of sexual harassment arising almost daily, some companies are rethinking their holiday parties, limiting free-flowing booze and late-night carousing to short-circuit inappropriate behavior.

Vox Media, which fired its editorial director in October over accusations of sexual misconduct, told its staff last week in an internal e-mail that it plans to “ramp up the food and cut down on the drinks” at its holiday party, according to news reports. Instead of an open bar, employees will be cut off after two alcoholic beverages.

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Some companies are holding their festivities during the day. Others are trying to put the focus on games or crafts. The National Federation of Independent Business is renewing its annual call for employers to inform workers of anti-harassment policies before the party and forgo the mistletoe.

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But the big difference is alcohol, which, while it doesn’t cause harassment, can lower people’s inhibitions and lead to lewd comments, unwanted shoulder rubs, and worse.

“I’m sure people in HR departments are like, ‘Holy [expletive], we better be careful,’” said Jill Tate, a partner at the Boston party planning company Corinthian Events.

In September, at a raucous awards event for a local tech firm, employees were ordering rounds of shots at an open bar, Tate said. But at the company’s holiday party this month, they are limited to one free drink, followed by a cash bar. Tate isn’t exactly sure of the reason, but she's noticed a number of companies pulling back on booze.

And some are doing away with drinking altogether.

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Less than half of companies surveyed by the outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. are serving alcohol this year, down from nearly 62 percent last holiday season. Daytime and on-site parties are also on the rise, and 11 percent of employers are not having parties at all this year, the highest percentage since 2009, when companies were slashing their spending because of the recession.

This year, the alcohol cutbacks don’t seem to be budget-related, planners said, because companies are still shelling out for short ribs, make-your-own hot cocoa stations, lavish floral arrangements, and snowy woodland scenes.

At least some of the temperance this holiday season is thought to be attributable to the “Weinstein effect,” according to Challenger, referring to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, whose accusers opened the floodgates of sexual assault and harassment claims across seemingly every industry.

Half of the nearly 70 corporate clients throwing parties this month through BG Events and Catering in Boston are either scaling back to beer and wine or moving to cash bars, said executive director Ken Barrett. “The assumption is that people aren’t going to get as crazy,” he said.

Barrett has also noticed that parties are being booked later, including one for 600 people — beer and wine only — that was arranged less than two weeks in advance.

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“That might be a reflection of watching society’s response to what’s going on,” he said.

But simply putting a limit on liquor isn’t enough, said Tracy Burns, president of the Northeast Human Resources Association. If employers are really serious about protecting employees, they need to put a more wide-ranging plan in place.

“It’s a bigger cultural issue,” Burns said, “Not just, ‘Oh, we had an open bar at our holiday party and somebody had too much to drink and did XYZ.’ ”

Of course, companies can never completely control their employees’ behavior. Some people show up to parties drunk, or stash flasks in their purses. And the after-parties at the bar next door are often where the true craziness happens.

Plenty of companies aren’t sobering up at all. One local tech company is having a Clue-themed party in a Watertown mansion, complete with actors portraying different mysteries for guests to solve in every room, as well as acrobats and an open bar.

The Boston Harbor Hotel is also going ahead with its usual holiday party, featuring a DJ and an open bar, but the party-planning committee considered everything from issuing a set number of tickets for free drinks to holding the party during the day and inviting employees’ kids, said Judy Brooks, director of human resources for the hotel. This from a company that requires each of its nearly 400 employees to attend an annual six-hour sexual harassment prevention training.

“It came down to the fact that there hasn’t been any issue, so why would we change something that employees love?” Brooks said.

Holiday parties in general are less over the top than they used to be, observers say, as employers look to limit their liability and keep employees from over-indulging. One financial firm that a party planner worked with even required its employees to show up for work the day after the holiday party; if they called in sick, they didn’t get a bonus.

Party planners themselves are also getting more cautious.

At the end of the night, Corinthian Events has started sending out staff to survey the venue, including the bathrooms, in case someone is passed out in a corner. If someone loses consciousness, an ambulance is called automatically; if someone needs a ride home, Corinthian hires a professional driver and accompanies the person all the way there.

Even though less drinking means less revenue for party planners, less drunkenness is good.

“Believe me, we prefer that,” said Jim Little, senior sales executive at Gourmet Caterers in Boston, who has more clients opting for two drink tickets, followed by a cash bar, this year. “We just have to be very careful. It’s our liability insurance.”

Some see the liquor-less trend expanding beyond holiday parties, into other workplace celebrations such as anniversaries and retirement galas.

“Instead of having a blowout party,” said Barrett of BG Events and Catering. “It’s: ‘Here’s your cake and alcohol-free punch.’ ”

Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com.