In today’s politically correct world, the office party stands out like a wet T-shirt competition at a golden wedding celebration. Its days are numbered.
The risks are clear. On a personal level there is the danger of a) gyrating wildly to Kool & the Gang b) making inappropriate lip contact with colleagues and being caught on camera c) (a personal best) setting fire to your napkin.
On an organisational level, the problems are more serious. There are the unforeseen costs. One unnamed US finance organisation, for example, is said to have held its party at Madame Tussauds last week. At the end of the event two of the waxworks were rumoured to have lost their heads and Jennifer Aniston’s doppelganger was apparently missing a finger (perhaps another prospective husband wanted it measured up). Such things do not come cheaply.
More importantly for the company, there’s the danger that inappropriate and invariably lewd behaviour will come back to bite in the form of discrimination claims. In 2004, for example, former Merrill Lynch lawyer Elizabeth Weston successfully sued the bank for 1m after a senior colleague complimented her breasts at a Christmas lunch.
And even if the event passes off without any salacious nods and winks, there’s a risk that its general tone could be conducive to discrimination back in the more sober confines of the office. “The Christmas party can often be a catalyst for harassment,” says Fraser Younson, head of the employment law practice at Berwin Leighton Paisner. “What can start as a drunken smooch on the dance floor has the unfortunate habit of leading to other unwelcome incidents in the coming months.”
One law firm, Edward Lewis, found references to ‘erotic’ ice sculptures at its Christmas party a liability in a subsequent discrimination case. Another, Nabarro Nathanson, faced a sexual harassment claim after handing out chocolate penises.
Banks may be waking up to the Christmas party peril. They are at least refusing to foot the bill. Deutsche Bank is purportedly pulling out of subsidising festivities for its global markets staff, while Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are said to have asked senior staff to stump up some of the costs from their own pockets. The chief executive of the rumoured Madame Tussauds’ celebrants is said to be furious and is threatening to pull the plug on repeat events.
So if you get a chance to frolic at the office event this year, ensure you make the most of it. Riotous Christmas parties are a thing of the past. Soft drinks and civility are the way of the future.