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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

‘Let Them Dance…But Not Too Close’: Welcome to the Post-Weinstein Holiday Party

To head off bad behavior at office holiday parties, companies are canceling open bars, abolishing hard liquor or forgoing dark nightclub settings for well-lit or family-friendly venues. Others are sending employees blunt reminders of the kind of antics that could land them in trouble.
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Vanessa Fuhrmans ,

Joann S. Lublin and

Suzanne Vranica

As revelations of sexual misconduct sweep the nation, FCB Worldwide Inc. isn’t mincing any words detailing the kind of behavior that could land employees in trouble at the ad agency’s various holiday parties this season.

In a memo titled “Stupid Fun vs. Responsible Fun” that was sent to its 2,600 employees in the U.S. and Canada late Friday, the unit of Interpublic Group of Co s. laid out a number of party “don’ts”—from kissing colleagues under mistletoe to over-the-line gyrating on the dance floor. Posting “Stupid Fun” pictures on social media shouldn’t happen, the memo read, while off-color jokes are a no-no since “someone might be wired.”

“Unfortunately, Stupid Fun in the workplace often turns into Regrettable Fun the next day,” the email read. “And Regrettable Fun has given rise to corporate phrases like ‘HR has received a formal complaint,’ ‘zero tolerance,’ and ‘fired for cause.’”

The ad agency isn’t the only company trying to rein in excessive employee merrymaking in response to the allegations roiling the entertainment, media and other industries. To head off bad behavior this office-holiday-party season, scores of businesses are canceling open bars, abolishing hard liquor or forgoing dark nightclub settings for well-lit or family-friendly venues. Others, like FCB, are sending employees blunt reminders of the kind of antics that could make them the subject of water-cooler gossip the next day—or worse.

The caution reflects the combustible mix that holiday work parties often bring together: alcohol plus colleagues dismissive or unsure of what work rules still apply at a celebration outside the office. The heightened sensitivity around sexual misconduct means “the terms of engagement are changing,” said Jay Starkman, chief executive of human-resources services company Engage PEO, who predicts less hugging at his employer’s headquarters holiday bash next week.

After an Engage PEO holiday celebration a few years ago, a woman complained to its HR department because Mr. Starkman hugged her and other male and female associates—but didn’t hug every woman there. He says the incident made him wonder “whether I should ever hug anybody at a holiday party again.’’

Since October, when the first of dozens of women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of serial sexual harassment and assault, Mr. Starkman said about a dozen company clients have asked him whether they should do anything differently in preparing their holiday parties. His main tip: Remind employees that “our company has no tolerance for any inappropriate conduct.”

Some companies muting the holiday revelry have had the national wave of sexual harassment allegations land on their doorsteps. At Vox Media, the cocktails flowed freely as the digital-media group’s employees packed New York’s trendy Highline Ballroom for the company’s staff holiday party last year. But last week, the company announced the annual party’s open bar would be eliminated. Instead, attendees will get two drink tickets, party organizers said in a staff memo, after which only nonalcoholic drinks will be available.

“Even though alcohol isn’t always the reason for unprofessional behavior, creating an environment that encourages overconsumption certainly contributes to it,” the email read.

Vox Media employees say the decision fits with a broader, longer-term effort to ensure work events are more inclusive at the relatively young media company.

In October, Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff announced that editorial director Lockhart Steele had been fired after he “admitted in engaging in conduct that is inconsistent with our core values.” His ouster came a week after a former employee, in a blog post on Medium, alleged harassment and assault at places where she had once worked. She didn’t identify Vox Media. Mr. Steele declined to comment.

Companies are taking precautionary measures. Document Solutions LLC, a New Jersey office-equipment maker with about 67 employees, is breaking with previous tradition and won’t serve hard liquor at this year’s holiday party. The move reflects the company’s worries about the harassment scandal and drunken driving, said Kevin O’Connor, a partner at Document Solutions.

Both lewd behavior and employees driving under the influence expose companies to potential liabilities at holiday parties, particularly where alcohol is served. Under the law, employers are just as responsible for preventing sexual harassment at work-related holiday parties as they are in the workplace, employment-law attorneys say.

Employers are well aware that holiday parties can result in harassment claims, but before the Weinstein allegations they were willing to accept the risk, said Brian Kropp, head of the human-resources practice group at Gartner Inc., a research and advisory firm. “If there was a complaint of harassment at the party, the historical playbook from HR was to eliminate any knowledge of it and pay people off,” Mr. Kropp said. “Now companies say ‘we need to tell people what happened and why that person’s not working here anymore.’”

A major U.S. drug company that Mr. Kropp advises told its HR staffers they should consider the holiday party a work night because they will be expected to police the event for bad behavior. “They were told to go ahead and interrupt that conversation if they don’t like the looks of it,” he said. “You’re going to be like a parental chaperone at a high school party. Let them dance together, but not too close.”

A few surveys suggest some companies are canceling parties altogether because of the barrage of sexual-misbehavior headlines.

Chicago-based consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., which surveyed 150 human-resource officials, found 11% of employers were dropping plans to put on holiday parties this year after holding them previously, compared with just 4% last year—a sharp jump despite a strong economy and job growth. The number planning to serve alcohol, meanwhile, dropped to just below 50% from 62%, according to the poll.

Other companies are taking their holiday parties to places where employees’ children also can attend. Brandon Bruce, chief operating officer and co-founder of software startup Cirrus Insight, said that while he isn’t worried about misbehavior at his company’s holiday party, it has made him think more of the vibe he wants to set at work events. “As an employer, you’d have to live under a rock these days to not think about it.” His plan this year is to host the staff holiday party at a local children’s science museum so that colleagues can bond and have fun in a family setting.

“I’m struck with all the (sexual-misconduct allegations) how much of a role venue plays—locked office doors, hotel rooms, traveling overseas,” he said. “Venue often dictates how well we all behave.”

—John Simons and Benjamin Mullin contributed to this article.

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