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Banning Booze at the Office Party Won’t End Sexual Harassment

But it may still be a good idea

Holiday parties are supposed to be drunken affairs where Dan from accounting finally cuts loose, reveals an office crush, dances like an idiot, or pukes up the mushroom puffs in the bathroom. None of that would be possible without an open bar and way too few snacks — at one time seemingly our right as American workers and a critical component to enduring forced cheer with your coworkers.

But times have changed and men have now ruined the right to have “fun” on the company dime. (Thanks a lot guys.) Take Vox’s announcement that they will now limit the alcohol at the office holiday party this year to two drink tickets per person, instead of the previously enjoyed open bar. The decision has further ignited the national debate over whether making work events dry will tamp down instances of sexual harassment. The verdict: it’s complicated.

Vox’s decision to throttle the booze spigot this year comes on the heels of the late October firing of their editorial director Lockhart Steele for sexual harassment. According to reports, Steele harassed multiple victims at Vox. One of his victims, developer Eden Rohatensky, later wrote a piece about hearing of his firing, noting that when they complained to higher ups at Vox about it, they were told Steele had been punished and “could not drink at corporate events any longer.”

On social media, some folks are celebrating Vox’s decision as a good one for women, while others are criticizing it as a tone-deaf, Band-Aid solution that addresses the symptom of harassment culture but not the real cause of it. After all, not all harassment happens because you’re drunk. And also, why not just fire all the bad dudes? Then the rest of us can keep the party going in peace.

“RT if your sexual harasser was stone cold sober, every fucking time,” Salon’s Mary Beth Williams tweeted in response.

Rohatensky didn’t think it was the best move, either.

Others argue that Vox should get credit for realizing this is, at least, one small thing they can do to stem the tide of harassment in their workplace.

Still others poked fun at Vox for overly policing their employees.

And another likened their decision to some serious tee totaling on par with the Prohibition.

Some research has found a link between drinking and harassment. A 2004 study at Cornell University on gender harassment in the workplace, which polled 1,353 service workers from construction, service and manufacturing fields, found that drinking at work does lead to an uptick in men harassing women. In workplaces where men were allowed to drink heavily, harassment increased more than twofold (for women) for each additional drink consumed.

Second, alcohol is the most common drug involved in sexual assault, USA Today reported a few years ago, citing 2007 research from the National Institute of Justice that some 89 percent of assault victims who were incapacitated were due so thanks to alcohol. But they spoke to an expert who helped tease out what the actual conclusion from all this should be.

“People don’t get raped because they have been drinking, because they are passed out or because they are drunk,” the expert told USA Today. “People get raped because there is a perpetrator there — someone who wants to take advantage of them.”

Other research has found that booze and harassment may really enjoy each other’s company, but that doesn’t mean one causes the other. It’s actually possible harassing types will drink first to justify the harassment they’re about to embark upon.

Experts and activists raising awareness about sexual assault have argued that taking away booze won’t stop rape and harassment. Harassers gonna harass, they remind us. Rapists gonna rape. Nix the booze, and now you just have a harasser who needs a new strategy.

But all that said, it doesn’t mean holiday office parties with loads of booze aren’t a landmine of problems. HR departments have long understood that if you throw a bunch of coworkers together and give them unlimited booze, you’re asking for trouble.

People get falling down drunk, dance badly and curse, for starters. At Ask a Manager, management expert Alison Green fields a question from a reader who wants to know how to deal with working at a company that actually encourages employee drinking regularly. The reader has already heard tales of vomiting and a guy who started calling all the women bitches. Green points out precisely the range of pitfalls possible here. She writes:

While I have nothing against anyone drinking if that’s what they feel like doing, a company encouraging drinking to excess at its own events is asking for all sorts of bad things to happen — from unprofessional behavior, at a minimum, to sexual harassment, drunk driving, injuries, fights, and other problems. Sure, probably not all of those, but spin a wheel and pick randomly from the list. None seem good. And that’s to say nothing of simply alienating employees who don’t particularly want to get drunk or be around drunken coworkers.

In another post from a reader who asks how she can recover her reputation after getting embarrassingly drunk at a work thing, Green remarks astutely: “Drinking with coworkers is one of those things that can seem fine right up until the point that suddenly it’s not fine, at which point it’s too late.”

And even though this discussion of Vox’s booze patrol is playing out in an era of unprecedented consequences for sexual harassment and assault, employment law experts have also long warned about the fallout that comes from booze-sponsored workplaces. Discrimination claims may arise if a drunk employee starts using slurs about gender, race, sexual orientation or religion. Liability claims can arise from drinking and driving after the party — those lawsuits are not a fun read — or any other injury that may occur. After all, drunk people tend to stumble around a lot and fall. They sometimes even brawl.

Their solutions match Vox’s: Limit the alcohol in some way, like by giving out tickets, making the employees actually pay at a cash bar, cutting them off if they appear drunk, or offering tons of food to soak up all that booze. Other employment law sites advise taking hard liquor off the menu altogether, and emphasize reminding management, and everyone, really, to maintain a professional standard.

But even lawyers make clear that it’s not the booze, stupid; it’s the asshole. “Some people are just prone to offensive, inappropriate, or troubling behavior regardless of whether they are stone-sober or high as a kite,” writes lawyer Patrick Krill in a column about drinking at law firm parties. That said, Krill notes, “Free-flowing booze is certainly a risk-factor for inciting behavior that can range from mildly annoying and inappropriate to wholly outrageous and legally actionable.”

While this makes it sound like there’s a clear benefit to limiting booze at office parties or banning it altogether, it’s hard to imagine any incentive for attending a dry holiday party for more than exactly seven minutes.

On Twitter, writer Eve Peyser asked why we expect unlimited booze from employers anyway.

But the answer to that is simple. If you’re obligating workers to show up at a work function to stand around awkwardly in a holiday sweater without so much as a light buzz, this isn’t a party anymore. It’s work.

Here’s an idea: Pay us for the time. The best suggestion so far? Take the cash from the booze budget and give it to employees as bonuses. That’s about as fun as it’s ever going to get these days.