Holiday office parties can be a hotbed of awkwardness, occasionally regrettable behavior, and a genuine HR concern. Not only do such events require hours of forced chit-chat, they can set the (boozy) stage for all kinds of behavior, some harmless, some not.
Corporate holiday parties have generally been seen as a fun way to reward employees for a year of hard work. But this year, as allegations of sexual misconduct have dominated the news, event planning professionals say they are predicting a shift toward more conscientious party planning — erring on the side of safety.
In many cases, that means less focus on evening events — and the alcohol that accompanies them — and more focus on team activities.
“A general trend we anticipate seeing is more activities at events — less focus on socializing and mingling,” said Sara Alepin, founder of District Bliss, a Washington, D.C.-based networking event planner for creative professionals, and Photos From the Harty. “There’s more of a focus on team-building. And I wouldn’t be surprised if some corporate and networking events get shifted toward the daytime, rather than the evening.”
For example, one of Alepin’s recent events included a simple DIY where guests painted wooden fixtures in winter-themed shapes, like snowflakes and deer.
“It was more focused on decor for anything — not just tree ornaments, but something you could use in your house for whatever purpose,” she added.
Also gone: Santa. “In the past, I’ve been hired to find Santa Clauses for adult parties, where there’s sitting on laps and things like that, but I think that’s going completely out the window this year,” added District Bliss ambassador and Events to a T founder Tracy Leaman.
And what about mistletoe? In a word: no.
“I’d skip the mistletoe,” wrote Ask a Manager creator Alison Green, via e-mail. “Sure, it’s a traditional Christmas decoration, but there’s no shortage of other holiday decorations you can use that don’t actively invite the kissing of colleagues.”
Plus, adds Leaman. It’s pretty out of fashion, anyway. “I think mistletoe is antiquated, and we won’t be seeing anything like that either.”
In terms of decor, Alepin suggested more “neutral” decor that implies more of a “winter party” than a “holiday party.” She explained: “Everyone’s a little bit worried about offending anyone within any organization or life in general that there’s more cautiousness of decor and wording.”
For Nicole Gallub, who spins under the name DJ Neekola and is the CEO of entertainment booking company Pelonkey, the increased sensitivity has been a challenge.
“We have to keep everything completely PC,” she explained. “We can’t have characters dressed in anything Christmas or Kwanzaa or anything. [Instead] they’ll be in all gold, with gold wigs and LEDs. It’s cool, but challenging. We can only do reds or greens — but we won’t do red and green together.”
Gallub, whose calendar is 25 events strong in the D.C. area this holiday season (five of which she will DJ), said while musical choices with religious leanings have seen a decline, support for perpetually questionable tracks like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” remains surprisingly strong.
“I had a corporate event that wanted me to start off with that song,” she said. (For those who need a refresher, the 1944 Frank Loesser song involves a young woman who wants to leave a man’s apartment, while he continually tries to persuade her to stay. At one point, she utters the infamous line, “Say, what’s in the drink?”)
Green, nevertheless, thinks the song’s polarizing effect should keep it off the corporate playlist.
“I’d avoid ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside,’ ” advised Green. “Not everyone seems to agree on whether that song is creepy or not, but enough people hear it that way that there’s no point in introducing that into a work event that’s meant to bring people together and generate good feelings.”
To curtail drinking, some corporate events are turning to craft mocktails in an attempt to make non-alcoholic options more exciting.
“In general, we’ve seen ‘no shots’ or ‘beer and wine only’ but [with mocktails] we’ve been given the opportunity to explore those types of themes,” said Ted Hawkins, the general manager and wine director at SRV, a Venetian-inspired restaurant and bar in Boston’s South End. “I think bartenders have a fun time getting to create something [non-alcoholic] that’s interesting. We can do something more savory with bitters and herbs, that’s not just quintessentially fruity.”
The trend follows the 49 percent (down from 62 percent in 2016) of companies that plan to cut the booze budget at this year’s party. For SRV’s 14 corporate holiday parties on the books this season, more than half requested signature mocktails in addition to a cocktail list.
“I think people are gravitating that route not necessarily from a financial perspective but to eliminate or moderate the intake of alcohol,” he continued.
But perhaps this year’s biggest responsibility will fall to managers to set the standard from the start.
“It’s not a bad idea to look at how alcohol-focused your events are. There’s really no need to lower people’s inhibitions at a business event, and heavy drinking tends to make problems more likely,” wrote Green. “It’s also important for employers to make sure that people are trained in understanding what sexual harassment is, how to spot it, and the fact that managers must report if they see or hear about it. You also need to create an environment where people feel safe speaking up if someone is making them uncomfortable, and where they don’t fear that they’ll face negative repercussions for reporting it.”
Or, as one event professional put it: If there’s concern that corporate partygoers might overindulge, perhaps the party budget should be redirected toward sexual harassment training.
Just a thought.