Matt Lauer was fired and now you’re canceling your holiday party!? A letter from a reader and my response

Dear Stephen:

I own a medium sized business and every year we hold several Holiday Parties. We host one big bash at our headquarters and then others at our regional offices. This year, I am worried that things may have to change.

It is no secret that an office party is the perfect storm for sexual harassment issues: Bringing alcohol into the workplace can (in my experience) be a lot of fun and great way to build comradery between employees. Sometimes though, the move can backfire as people slowly lose control of their less savory impulses.

Today, it seems that every time I turn around there is another high profile sexual harassment issue happening in the news. The sad truth is that all these big shots on TV are only a reflection of what is happening on the factory floor or secretarial pool. From the drafting board to the board room, sexual assault and harassment really is an issue in the workplace. I have two daughters myself and am all too glad that we are finally waking up to these issues. However, I am ashamed to say that I have too many times seen my own company parties (from as far back as when I was allowed to call them “Christmas Parties”) turn in to situations that I no longer want to be a part of. It works both ways. From assistants who have too much to drink to cocky salespeople who think they own the world; everybody has the capability to step over the line.

With all of the world watching for sexual harassment to today, I am starting to feel like I need to protect myself and my business by just canceling the holiday party altogether. Why do I need the exposure? Is this as much of a risk as I am imagining it to be? What do you think and have you heard these concerns from anyone else?


Party Pooper


Dear Mr. Pooper:

Even before I get to your question: As a Workplace Expert and author of the HarperCollins Best-Seller “Bulletproof Your Job” I should say that I think this letter says a lot about your own company culture. I am sure you may not even realize the picture you just painted but let’s just say that I am glad not to be working for you! Did you really just make a remark that you could remember when you were allowed to call your “Holiday party” a “Christmas party? And do you really have a “secretarial pool”? Did I step into an episode of MAD MEN?

If what you say is true and every time your employees get near a drop of alcohol they pounce on the closest co-worker then I think you have far larger issues on your hands than a Holiday Party. I mean, are you running the company from hell?

Alcohol is not and never will be an excuse for inappropriate behavior no matter what the situation may be. What does this mean for you on a day-to-day basis? No sales meetings? No client lunches or dinners? If you are concerned for workers at the Holiday Party, shouldn’t you be concerned for workers when one of your “Cocky Salesmen” comes back from lunch with a client after sipping a couple of cocktails?

Yes, I have heard from some employers a version of your question and specifically some concern about “holidays parties” I’ve even heard of some companies making the decision to cancel them. I actually just read a study by Challenger, Gray, & Christmas (a polling firm out of Chicago) which says that 4% more offices across the country will be canceling their party over last year. What’s more, only 49% of these offices are going be serving alcohol! (down from 62% last year).

My response is always the same. Who are you people and who have you been hiring to work for you? Suddenly sexual harassment becomes the headline of the day and you make a corporate decision that your employees are not mature or smart enough to behave correctly at a company sponsored event?

Here is my advice: Bad behavior, especially sexual harassment towards women (and men) in the workplace just has to stop. Period.

As a Business Owner, CEO, President or even middle manager at any company you need to send a specific message to your people and be clear that this behavior is wholly unacceptable. This is not an HR issue. It is a cultural agenda that I believe starts with the owner or CEO and permeates every factor of your operation. It is not a “generational thing” either; I know for a fact that large companies in Silicon Valley staffed with hundreds of 24 year old kids are facing these exact same issues. This is why the expression “men are pigs” exists in the first place! Either your employees are pigs or they are not. Male or Female; gay or straight, it simply doesn’t matter.

Do not fall into the trap of blaming these issues on a drink or a party atmosphere. Don’t even bother blaming it on the nature of your business. Sexual harassment exists everywhere; in tech, medicine, politics and of course, TV and media. It is simply everywhere there are people working together without the backing of an overwhelmingly safe and positive culture.

I look at some corporate cultures today and they make me sick. Every company big or small should have a code of ethics that your employees sign off on as soon as you accept a job. The bottom line is that there is no room for any sort of sexual behavior in the workplace at all. If you think the workplace is the place for you to prey on your coworkers or subordinates then you should be fired, or out of business. No exception!

Let me also say; I understand that people can meet romantically at work, I have seen it happen many many times. However, do not confuse workplace romance with sexual harassment.

The bottom line is: If you are so concerned that a Holiday Party in your organization is going to morph into a drunken hotbed of assault and harassment then it sounds like you have a lot more to worry about at your company than simply canceling a little celebration! Look at the root of the cause and fix it. The times are clearly changing and your company better change with them!

Stephen Viscusi is the CEO of The Viscusi Group, a global executive search practice located in New York City. Viscusi is the author of the HarperCollins Best-Seller book "Bulletproof Your Job". You can visit his website at or follow him on Twitter @StephenViscusi.  If you enjoyed the article please Like, Share and Comment.