Office Holiday Parties Are Back, and Just as Weird as Ever

By Christopher Bonanos

The corporate holiday party is a night when everyone’s supposed to pretend there are no organizational charts, no office hierarchies. Interns can kick back with the bosses—and theoretically do more intimate things with them—and the next morning everyone’s just supposed to snap back into normal behavior, hangovers be damned.

During the boom years, startups and other profligate spenders would blow colossal amounts on these events, which were as much about chief executive ego and coolness as employee morale. That’s still happening to some extent: In 2010, the Blackstone Group (BX) rented out the Sackler Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the party centered around cutting a mammoth cake with the word “accountability” emblazoned on top. In 2011, Bridgewater Associates, a hedge fund famous in part for its parties, rented out a 10,000-seat arena for a holiday bash; while details were kept under wraps, past events have included mud wrestling. Billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, of Tudor Investment, puts on an annual light show (the “Jones-a-Palooza”) synchronized to music at his estate in Greenwich, Conn. Are the parties any less awkward for their extravagance? Not really. Even the greenest 22-year-old attendees sense they’re witnessing something unsustainable—a lot of someone’s venture capital being tossed into a fire pit.

In the cold December after the financial crisis of 2008, many companies decided to go the other way, skipping the party entirely. The employee-retention rationale kind of goes out the window when jobs are scarce and nobody is likely to leave anyway. Above the Law, a popular blog about the legal world, recently opined that big firms would be better off forgoing their joyless parties and parceling out the entertainment budget in the form of $100 gift cards to employees. Ho, ho, ho.

Some years back, I worked for a corporation whose stock price was slowly sinking, and I watched each December as the party budget withered away. First, spouses were knocked off the list; then many unrelated divisions of the company were all invited to one shared event; then, finally, the thing was canceled altogether.

Holiday parties are back, if not quite in full force. Even now that the economy is marginally better, throw a party that’s one iota nicer than your staff might expect, and it’s certain that some Grinch will mutter, “I’d rather have had a raise this year.” Battalia Winston, a firm that does an annual survey of corporate merriment, is reporting the first uptick since the crash: 91 percent of companies plan to give a party this year, the most since 2007 and a big bump from the 74 percent figure (a 25-year low) of 2011. Anthony Patrone, co-owner of a Brooklyn party-planning company called Ultra Events & Staffing, says he’s definitely noticed an improvement: “December’s always busy, but many more businesses are asking about rates this year. People are saying ‘enough is enough.’ ” David Stark, a top event planner who runs David Stark Design & Production in Brooklyn, also points to the microtrend of “corporations giving their money to Sandy relief instead of throwing the blowout bash.” Do-gooderism is a neat inoculation against employee grumpiness: They can’t complain about that.

Many parties this year will hit a middle ground between opulent and, well, nonexistent, but that won’t make them any less strange. Consider those held in the office itself. Getting hammered on the premises feels transgressive, whether it is or not. There’s actual science behind that: One British study led by the school of psychology at the University of Birmingham found that drinking in an unusual setting—the conference room, say, as opposed to your local pub—does in fact get you drunker, because your brain compensates for lowered inhibition better in familiar surroundings.

Then there are the hookups. Stark recalls one big corporate event at which he encountered “sex in a bathroom, with vomiting right before they vacated the room.” There’s also the experience of learning that your co-worker, to whom you have barely spoken two words all year, is getting a divorce/having money problems/hates the boss. A survey by Caron Treatment Centers, a drug- and alcohol-treatment service, reveals that fully one quarter of all partygoers have heard someone overshare. Puke notwithstanding, isn’t this all starting to sound like a bit of a blast?

The best thing that ever happened to a holiday party, in my experience, turned out to be its cancellation. After the old employer mentioned above turned austere, our boss said, “Oh, I’ll host something myself,” and had us all over to her house. One senior staffer mixed up gallons of very strong margaritas; three of us prepped hundreds of hors d’oeuvres. The outsiderness of the thing gave it back to us. It was no longer a line in the budget, and an assistant finished out the evening pantsless and asleep in the bathtub. It was the weirdest, warmest party—work-related or not—I can remember attending.

10 ways to limit holiday party liquor liability

The holiday season is upon us, and if you’re planning a company party or awards banquet, you might want to give some thought to your policy on alcohol.

Serving employees alcohol at company-sponsored parties and events can have serious and sometimes tragic consequences for your workers and your organization.

For example, if an employee drinks too much and gets into an accident on the way home, you could be held liable. Plus, sexual harassment complaints tend to increase when alcohol consumption goes up.

Here are some suggestions to help prevent alcohol-related problems—including sexual harassment and auto accidents—and limit your exposure to liability if you do decide to serve liquor:

  1. Don’t serve liquor. The simple solution to the problem is not to serve alcohol at all—though this may not be realistic.
  2. Limit consumption. You may be able to limit the amount people drink by having a cash bar or by providing tickets good for only two or three drinks. Also, stay away from sweet punches containing alcohol. These can make it difficult for people to tell how much alcohol they have consumed—until it’s too late.
  3. Close the bar early. One to two hours before the end of the event, stop serving alcohol. If possible, continue serving food even after the bar is closed.
  4. Have the party off-site. If the party takes place at a hotel or restaurant with a liquor license—and the facility’s employees serve the drinks—you’re less likely to be held responsible.
  5. Establish an alcohol policy. Institute a company policy to let your employees know that excessive drinking at company functions will not be tolerated. Also remind workers about the dangers of drinking and driving.
  6. Offer transportation. Make taxi vouchers available to provide the option of cab rides at company expense.
  7. Avoid company business. To help make the event a social affair, keep any discussion of business to a minimum and hold the party outside of regular business hours.
  8. Make company functions voluntary. It’s a good idea to make attendance at company parties where liquor is consumed entirely voluntary.
  9. Invite families. Inviting spouses and dates tends to make the event more of a social occasion rather than a business function.
  10. Don’t invite customers, clients, or business associates. Inviting the people your company does business with increases the likelihood that the event is an official company function.
  11. Watch for minors. The law can come down hard on you if you allow minors to drink alcohol. If a significant number of your employees are minors, or if you expect families to attend (e.g., the event is a company picnic), consider serving no alcohol at all.

Although it’s impossible to exercise absolute control over your employees, the key to avoiding liability, as well as keeping workers safe and out of legal trouble, is to do everything you can to prevent them from drinking too much and getting behind the wheel.