From ho, ho, ho to no, no, no! Office parties feel the chill

Holiday gatherings have become toned-down affairs

Categories: Business, Life & Arts, News

Remember the scene in the movie “Office Christmas Party” when the head of human resources grabbed the DJ’s microphone and told employees to have sex in the parking lot instead of in their cubicles? Wait, you didn’t see it?

Well, anyway: Those days are over, even in jest. Holiday gatherings have become toned-down affairs as executives respond to demands to cut costs, improve company morale and, this year, address sexual harassment in the workplace.

More companies are focusing their efforts on holiday parties that promote teams and foster cooperation. A growing favorite are parties at bowling alleys and escape rooms, events with a manageable size and guest list. At Vox Media, the company whose editorial director was recently fired for sexual harassment, guests will be limited to two drink tickets at its holiday party, putting a chill on alcohol consumption (and potentially scandalous behavior). Other companies are taking a more stringent approach, cutting out booze altogether.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a human resources and outplacement firm, surveyed 150 human resources representatives and found that the number of parties is expected to hold steady this year. Of those, though, 47.8 percent of employers will offer cocktails, wine or beer, down from 62 percent in 2016.

Bob Colacello, a Vanity Fair special correspondent who attends a fair share of holiday parties, believes the current political and cultural environment is, in itself, a deterrent to unseemly high jinks. “The only thing people like to talk about anymore is Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein,” he said. “And, with that as the dominant subject of conversation, it does tend to inhibit everything from predatory sexual behavior to innocent flirting.”

(Both Trump and Weinstein have been accused of sexual misconduct, in case you needed reminding.)

David Adler, the founder of BizBash, which tracks trends in the event-planning industry, said exuberant merriment or worse has always been a risk at corporate holiday events. But this year, with bosses, underlings and co-workers under increased scrutiny, everyone will be on their best behavior. Still, some companies are reminding employees that an office party is governed by the decorum at work.

“This is not the year for telling your boss off,” Adler said. “You aren’t going to see people letting their hair down.”

In Los Angeles, where morale has been worsened by a spate of sexual harassment charges against big-name actors and executives, the holiday vibe is markedly low-key. Paramount Pictures’ former chairman Brad Grey, who died in May, used to hold an A-list holiday shindig to celebrate the studio’s filmmakers. One year, he invited Harrison Ford, Lorne Michaels and Jack Nicholson, who gathered for cocktails and canapés in the columned loggia on his Bel Air estate, overlooking an azure pool set in an acre of rolling lawn.

Regulars included Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Few Paramount executives were invited. Neighbors and nonfamous friends didn’t come either.

Jim Gianopulos, the former Twentieth Century Fox veteran hired to replace Grey, is taking a more inclusive approach this year. He, too, is holding a holiday party at his home for Paramount’s filmmakers and creative colleagues. But he also invited studio executives, as well as some reporters and personal friends. “It’s a casual, low-key event,” said Chris Petrikin, a Paramount studio executive who worked with Gianopulos at Fox.

This is not to be confused, of course, with the annual Christmas party on the Paramount lot. There, a tree is lit and fake snow drifts across the lot. Grey spared no extravagance when he ran the studio. One year, the party featured a carnival theme and an indoor Ferris wheel. This year, Petrikin said, it did not.

Time Inc., once known for Christmas hoopla where convivial young editors supped on buckets of oysters and glasses brimming with Champagne, has moved its party to dreary January for the second year in a row. Adler, of BizBash, said corporations are hard-pressed to cancel holiday parties outright. “It sends the wrong message about the company,” he said. “It says the company does not care about its people.”

But there are ways to edit that message. For more than a decade, HBO rented a grand ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for a lavish holiday luncheon for its 2,500 employees. Waiters passed trays of sushi. Platters of pasta and roast chicken were laid out, alongside bountiful glasses of wine and beer. More recently, though, HBO found the event as poorly received as the first season of “Hello Ladies.” About half its employees stayed home. Many of those who showed up didn’t stick around.

Executives surmised (perhaps wisely) the party’s meager attendance wasn’t enough to justify the $300,000 price tag. So, two years ago, HBO offered its employees an afternoon off with their co-workers to volunteer at a charity instead. Last December, staffers in New York packed 101,316 children’s meals, while others visited an art center or a pediatric hospital in Hackensack, New Jersey. Millennials, in particular, clamored for more. This holiday season, 95 percent of HBO employees participated in the volunteering drive.

“We read the news,” said Dennis Williams, an HBO executive who oversees the program. “People are extremely eager to be involved in social causes.”

Millennials, he said, seek to connect through experiences, whether it be in a socially conscious context, like volunteering, or a collaborative activity. “They expect the company to provide them with those kinds of experiences,” Williams said.

A less philanthropic but still debauchery-free experience can be had at Escape the Room, an interactive game site where as many as 10 people are shut in a room and have one hour to solve a puzzle. Holiday bookings are up this year, said Wyndham Manning, the manager of the company’s location in Midtown Manhattan. And many are new corporate clients, albeit smaller groups, given the size and intensity of the games.

“People view this as an alternative to traditional parties,” said Manning. Investment professionals from both KKR & Co. and JPMorgan Chase recently booked all five rooms for a single hourlong session, he said. Citibank, too, booked two sessions of three games for an evening.

Intimate gatherings give companies what they lack otherwise during the holiday party season: control in a particularly fraught year. “We’ve always had a zero-tolerance policy” for sexual harassment, said Elizabeth Maddick, the human resources manager at PicsArt, a San Francisco company that makes an app for image editing and drawing. “We wouldn’t do anything different, except to remind people that office policy is the same for an office party.”

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