Illustration by Dave van Patten

Should Our Bad Behavior at the Office Holiday Party Get a Pass?

The fourth in our weeklong series on how to survive the office holiday party with your reputation intact

So it begins — office holiday party season. (Even the movies say so.) To help you navigate yours, we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know and the woman behind our biweekly ‘Go See HR’ column. Every day this week she’ll be answering one holiday party-specific question to ensure that your festive office gathering results in harmless fun instead of a never-ending nightmare your co-workers won’t let you live down.

My company takes a “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” approach to the holiday party — as well as most after-hours gatherings. Or better put, the same rules don’t apply that apply in the office itself. I find it healthy and realistic — people are going to get drunk, people are going to hook up and people are going to smoke weed when not confined to a desk or trapped in a conference room.

I know not everyone else feels the same. But we’re a small startup and that’s primarily our culture. Is it really that wrong to let human beings be human beings when they’re not at the office? —Vincent L., Boston
Oh my, you’ve raised a number of alarming issues that are potentially dangerous, illegal, negligent and rife with liabilities. Or you know, just a few of the small things. You might not think there’s a difference between these activities occurring at someone’s apartment as a casual after-work get-together as opposed to a company-sponsored event that can get wild like the holiday party. But… THERE IS. Again, let me repeat: THERE. MOST. CERTAINLY. IS.

Let’s just look at the liability of some the real-life situations you allude to:

  • In Massachusetts, where you work, an employee who wants to allege sexual harassment because of office hook-ups can file a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination if his or her company employs more than five people. That’s lower than the federal 15-employee threshold and probably covers your startup.
  • There’s established case law where a widow sued her deceased husband’s company because he died in an auto accident driving home from work. She was able to show that his company’s employees regularly drank after work and that the owner-managers participated in the activities and often purchased the liquor.
  • If your employer allows weed, s/he is breaking federal law. That means if one of your colleagues gets pissed — about the weed or anything else — they can report you and you could be arrested, especially if new Attorney General Jeff Sessions starts cracking down on marijuana use.
  • Ambulance-chasers are all around, so if there isn’t a federal or state law that’s been violated, emergency-room visits (yours or an innocent bystander’s) resulting from excessive drug or alcohol consumption can still get your company sued.

Let’s also not forget that social media captures your and your company’s excesses, so don’t be naïve in thinking that the crazy shit you’re doing with the start-up isn’t going to follow you around.

Don’t believe me? Check out Casino.org, which “found that when ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ becomes a social media hashtag, all bets are off for privacy and anonymity.” And: “Despite Instagram’s strict nudity policies, there were over 300 posts [with the hashtag #WhatHappensInVegasStaysInVegas] containing nudity in just 10 months.” Other posts with the hashtag included weapons, booze and drugs.

In other words, your secrets are safe with no one. So there’s no point in pretending that they can be kept. That mentality will just come back to bite you in the ass.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at terry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.