Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Booze, Sex and HR: maintain perspective; accept corporate responsibility

In the spirit of the holiday party season, Mike VanDervort made the following challenge on his blog, The Human Race Horses: On November 30, 2011, write a blog post using the three-word theme of “Booze, Sex and HR.” This is my entry.

Life is full of perspective-defining events. Each chapter in one’s life creates a new perspective that helps shape each successive chapter. One of the chapters that helps define who I am as a management-side employment attorney is the three summers I worked during my college years at a Philadelphia t-shirt wholesaler. The first summer I ran myself over (true story) driving its beat-up delivery van. The next two summers I worked inventory. In retrospect, management must have figured that the college kid could count better than he could drive. The warehouse was full of colorful characters, including one whose idea of employee engagement was to hide buckets of KFC amid the racks of boxes (another true story), and another who complained about not receiving a raise by burning an effigy of the Jewish owner spray-painted with a swastika and the phrase “Die Cheap Jew” (yet another true story). And who could forget the African-American who was (not so) affectionately referred to as either “Ape” or “Gorilla” or simply “N—-er,” depending on people’s whims on any particular day. Suffice it to say this job provided a ton of perspective.

When I returned for my final summer, I noticed that one of the star employees was missing. When I asked what happened to him, I was told that he was fired following that year’s Christmas party. After over-indulging, he decided it was a good idea to strip down to his underwear, grab the owner’s wife on the dance floor, and, well, you can picture the rest.

There is no set of circumstances under which an employee can grind the boss’s wife without consent and in a state of semi-undress and enjoy any expectation of job security. Yet, all of the fault does not lie with this (rightfully terminated) employee. Employers must take some level of ownership over their employees’ holiday party antics when they make available the tools of overindulgence. Holiday parties are supposed to be a celebration of, and a thank you for, the past year. These celebrations and thank-yous do not have to be fueled by enough liquor to drop an elephant.

In this vein, I offer the following as a public service announcement for employers and HR departments everywhere:

  • Host responsibly. An office holiday party is not the same as a college frat party.
  • Consider holding your party mid-week (or even mid-day), instead of a Friday or Saturday night.
  • Limiting the availability of alcohol will curb overconsumption. Making sure enough food is available will also keep people’s drinking in check.
  • Limiting consumption will help to limit employees’ misbehavior, legal risks, and potential liabilities (think drunk drivers, sexual and other harassment, fights, and other incivility better left to a Sunday tailgate)
  • When employees overindulge, don’t be afraid to cut them off. Make sure trained bartenders and designated sober management-team members are monitoring consumption.
  • Just in case, have cab vouchers, designated drivers, and hotel rooms available for those who cannot safely navigate their own way home.

Have a happy and safe holiday season.