Since the #MeToo movement brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment to the forefront of public consciousness last year, many employers in the US and around the world have been reconsidering some of their policies and practices to reduce the likelihood of misconduct occurring or being tolerated within their organization. During last winter’s holiday season, more employers decided against serving alcohol at their office holiday parties, mindful of the risk that a drunk employee could engage in sexual harassment or other behavior that would incur liability for the organization. Others eschewed open bars in favor of drink ticket systems that limited employees to just two or three drinks, or other methods for discouraging overconsumption.
Now that summer is here, US employers are looking at another season of office parties, outings, and happy hours where these risks must be considered yet again. At The American Lawyer, reporter Meghan Tribe looks into how Big Law firms are rethinking their perks for summer associates, high-achieving law students exploring careers at the firm, who have traditionally enjoyed boozy dinners and other events over the course of their summer associate program jobs. Patrick Krill, a behavioral health consultant for the legal sector, explained to Tribe that, “In light of #MeToo movement, an open bar at a summer associate event is potentially a tinderbox of liability,” particularly since so many workplace sexual harassment claims in the industry are linked back to events with alcohol.
As an alternative, Tribe reports, some firms are redesigning their summer associate programs around events that don’t involve drinking. The itinerary for Goodwin Procter summer associates this year, for example, includes spin classes, cooking classes, and trips to the theater. The firm has also mandated anti-harassment training for all its employees (including summer associates), and will limit the availability of alcohol at work functions. Aside from the liability concerns, Goodwin Procter views its revamped summer associate program as an opportunity to communicate its culture and values, as well as demonstrate that it has gotten the message of #MeToo.
Organizations or teams planning summer events can take a few lessons from what these law firms and other companies are doing.
It’s entirely possible to organize fun events that don’t include (or aren’t focused on) drinking alcohol, especially if you’re based in a major city. Many employers still believe that making alcohol available in the workplace or at work events is an effective way to attract recent college graduates and other young talent, but recent research has found that drinking cultures actually repel many graduates, even those who drink. An organizational culture in which alcohol is a major feature is alienating to candidates who don’t drink, especially when it is used as a reward. It also can make some employees, particularly women, feel unsafe at work if their jobs require them to frequently spend time around intoxicated colleagues.
If you do decide to serve alcohol at a company or team event, here are a few steps you can take to mitigate against the risk of bad behavior and ensure that every employee feels included:
- Communicate to employees that it is inappropriate to drink heavily at these events and that alcohol consumption is no excuse for misconduct. Make respectful and responsible behavior at events a part of your culture and make it explicit in your employee handbook.
- Don’t make drinking the focus of the event. Feature some other activity, and offer a variety of interesting non-alcoholic beverage options, so that alcohol isn’t the sole attraction.
- Consider limiting alcohol options to beer and wine, and avoid serving punch or cocktails that mask the taste of alcohol and make it harder for employees to gauge how much they are drinking. Don’t serve alcohol without also serving food.
- Engage trained bartenders to serve drinks, with clear instructions not to serve any employee who is visibly intoxicated. Don’t allow employees to serve themselves or their colleagues. Use a drink ticket system or limit the amount of time during which alcohol is available to prevent employees from overindulging. Consider offering free soft drinks but having a cash bar instead of free alcohol; employees will tend to drink less if they have to pay for it themselves.
- Ensure access to taxis or public transportation from an event so that employees are not compelled to drive after drinking.