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The season to rejoice -- or recoil

Not everyone welcomes the office party. It could be an awkward affair or even a legal minefield.

December 15, 2006|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

Corporate bosses eager to spread a bit of holiday cheer are getting a big "bah humbug" from some of their employees.

Many workers say they would rather skip the annual office party.

That cheerlessness reflects the stilted nature of many corporate holiday gatherings, experts say, as well as cascading family events during December. Many employees profess fear of making a boneheaded move in front of the boss after a couple of rum-laced eggnogs. Lawyers who handle workplace disputes say harassment cases predictably spike after holiday parties.

The forced cheeriness can also be awkward for many employees, said Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXroads, a New Jersey recruiting and consulting firm. "You're socializing with people above you, people who are your peers and those you supervise," he said. "Not everyone's a party animal."

That would describe Gloria Smilovitch. A receptionist for the last four years at a downtown law firm, Smilovitch says she's not attending tonight's office gathering. "It's nothing personal," she said. "The job is great, the people are fine, but I'd rather not go."

Nonetheless, many companies are staging lavish parties this year to thank employees and customers. Others also sponsor volunteer events for workers who want to celebrate the season by doing more than hoisting glasses of wine.

The lack of enthusiasm for the office party is reflected in a recent survey reporting that just over half of employees say they don't care whether the boss throws a holiday bash. A quarter said they felt obligated to attend.

Younger workers and those with the highest salaries -- typically employees most eager for face time with the boss -- feel more obligated than others to show up, according to Spherion Corp., a Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based staffing firm that commissioned the survey of 1,600 employees.

Awkwardness kept Julie Wiant from attending her office party until last year.

"I was concerned that I wouldn't really know who to sit with and that I would be by myself," recalled the clerk for the magnet program at Eagle Rock High School.

She decided to go after teacher friends at the school encouraged her. Wiant said she had so much fun that she asked her adult son to join her this year.

Despite widespread staff indifference, nearly 80% of human resource executives say their companies will throw a holiday party this year, a figure virtually unchanged from a year ago, said John Challenger, president of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

One in 3 companies say they will spend more on the event this year, reflecting improving corporate profits, Challenger said. But even if the company has performed poorly, executives may go ahead with a party to keep up appearances for customers and staff.

Canceling plans can be "a sign of Scrooge-like problems," Challenger said.

Corporate events can range from a sedate wine and cheese reception to a lavish themed dinner featuring games and dancing that costs in excess of $200,000.

Los Angeles-based Vivendi Games planned a silent-screen-themed party for 615 employees and guests at the gilded Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Thursday night. The party was to feature footage incorporating Vivendi's video game characters into old silent films, two DJs, dancing and multiple food and drink stations, said Brandy Lebetsamer, the company's manager of special events. She declined to say how much the video game publisher would spend on the event but said the budget was bigger than last year's.

No matter the size of the event, lawyers see these gatherings as legal minefields, which could explain why some employees stay home.

Federal and state courts have held companies liable for discrimination and injury claims that began when some have too much to drink at holiday parties. In 1999, for instance, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that a male employee who grabbed a female co-worker's buttocks at an office Christmas party contributed to an abusive work environment at an Oregon corporation.

In another case, the California Supreme Court annulled a ruling by the Workers' Compensation Appeals Board denying compensation to a woman whose husband got drunk at an office Christmas party and died after he drove into a pole.

"People act as if there's a suspension of the rules," said Richard Simmons, a Los Angeles lawyer who has defended companies in harassment lawsuits. His caseload and those of his colleagues predictably rise each year after the holidays, he said.

Fear of lawsuits is part of the reason that Felix Chevrolet's 750 employees will celebrate the holidays during work hours next week with a party at the Wilshire Grand Hotel downtown, said Tony Abbott, general sales manager at the Los Angeles auto dealership.

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