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Over-drinking and inappropriate behavior have been long-standing concerns for companies hosting holiday parties, but the recent and heightened focus on sexual harassment has some employers quashing festivities entirely.

Human resource directors may be fretting a bit more this holiday season as sexual harassment in the workplace has been a regular feature in the news of late. And those concerns may explain why employers are toning down or even eliminating company parties, a new survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas finds.

The firm’s annual survey on company holiday parties found that of 150 HR representatives, almost 80% of firms plan to throw a party this year. While that is about the same percentage as last year, 11% of employers that held festivities in the past have decided to forgo them now. That compares with just 4% deciding not to host parties last year.

The survey was conducted in October and November. The 11% is the highest since 2010 when 24% of employers decided not to hold parties.

But stories of sexual harassment in the workplace have been a constant ping on many HR managers' radars this year. The hesitancy to throw parties also comes as 48% of companies say the economy is in better shape compared to last year.

“It’s very possible the results we’re seeing are due to news reports of sexual harassment and assault at work,” says Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray and Christmas. Slightly more than 15% of companies will spend less this year on holiday parties, an increase from 10% last year. Companies also are clamping down on alcohol, caterers and other outsourced services and the number of guests employees can invite.

“Employers are currently very wary of creating an environment where inappropriate contact between employees could occur,” Challenger says. “One way to create a safer environment is to limit the guest list, hold the party during the workday, and avoid serving alcohol.”

After seeing 62% of employers offer alcohol last year, the highest percentage since Challenger started conducting the survey in 2007, only 47.8% say they will do the same this year. “The current climate thankfully supports victims of sexual misconduct,” Challenger notes. “HR departments want to ensure workers have a safe and happy holiday season, not one marred by a disturbing workplace party experience.”

Cynthia Sass, of Tampa-based Sass Law Firm, says if companies are worried that a holiday party might encourage bad behavior, then their concerns should not just be limited to this time of year, ABC Action News reports.

“If you feel like things are going to happen that are going to lead to sexual harassment claims, then I think you need to look at how your employees are behaving, what type of environment is there,” Sass says. “These type of people who are going to do that at Christmas parties are doing it all year long.”

Inappropriate behavior at a holiday parties may not be enough in and of itself to get a firm in legal trouble, writes Dan Eaton, partner with San Diego law firm, Seltzer Caplan McMahon Vitek, in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“The California Court of Appeal has ruled that isolated sexually suggestive behavior at a company holiday party--a Santa’s hat with a gender-specific epithet, an invitation to female employees to sit on a male employee ‘Santa’s’ lap--does not satisfy this test,” Eaton notes. To take legal action, sexual harassment has to be severe and pervasive, he writes.

But managers and executives who may be the face of the organization should take great care not to push the limits. Managers also need to be mindful and quick to take action if they see behavior that might spiral out of control. “If a manager observes behavior at a holiday party that causes the manager to think ‘Thank God HR isn’t seeing this’--a male employee pressing against a female employee who shows signs of unease, a male client dragging a female employee toward the mistletoe--the manager should consider approaching the pair and joining their conversation,” Eaton writes.

“The approach should be made in the causal spirit of getting to know those involved better, the very purpose of the party, and not in the spirit of the disapproving chaperone. The mere insertion of the manager into the encounter may keep an awkward situation from turning into a unlawful one.”

Managers also need to be on top of post-party complaints, even for incidents they did not witness. Employers are by law required to investigate unlawful harassment complaints. “Investigation of what appears to be a single incident of misconduct may uncover an individual’s broader pattern of misbehavior,” Eaton writes. “The wave of news reports teaches us at least that. Be mindful of the party’s aftermath.”

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