About twelve years ago, at a leading New York cultural institution which shall not be named, I attended my department’s holiday party, at which no fewer than four of the men in attendance became drunkity-drunk-drunk. Things started out innocently enough, with everyone decorating the department’s hallways and boardroom with fake mistletoe and blue and silver tinsel and setting up trays of food and eggnog. Then someone decided to spike the nog and things went downhill from there. First people started talking in their outdoor, as opposed to indoor voices. Then there was the music switch from songs like Jingle Bell Rock to freak music, which although better to dance to, emboldened some of the drunk people to grab non-drunk members of the opposite sex and start grinding against them. Oh, and it didn’t end there… Before the party was over, these clowns were pulling women under the mistletoe with them, and saying things that would make a sailor blush. It was like these people had been let out of a cage, and it was their only chance to mate with the opposite sex. Needless to say, the professional fall-out from that evening rained down like ash from Mount St. Helens for months afterwards. Not pretty. And definitely not acceptable.
Does this kind of situation sound all too familiar? Whether it was you making that irreversible decision to get plastered or somebody else, there are some moments in life you just can’t take back. And how do you handle it, if a co-worker took advantage of the “everybody’s drinking” mentality and sexually harassed you?
In the moment, I’d suggest you don’t just go along with it, if it makes you uncomfortable, not only are you not being true to yourself, but you’re also enabling the other clowns in the room to think that type of behavior is OK. Even if it feels out of place to say “Stop,” say it and move away from them immediately. Try and join another group of partygoers who will respect your space. Now if the person, regardless of their professional superiority to you, dares to try and “follow-up” the shenanigans at a later time, when you’re both stone sober, I suggest saying something like, “You know, it got pretty crazy at that party the other night, but it’s not really something I’d like to pursue further.” And leave it at that. This is a noncommittal statement that shouldn’t offend any decent human being, because it doesn’t lay blame. After hearing something like this, a sensible person will know not to pursue you. If you feel that the co-worker/boss won’t leave it alone, then you have the option of responding via e-mail, which will then start a paper trail for HR if it should come to that.
Most situations never get this far, but a new report featured in Forbes this month mentioned how getting drunk at the office holiday party is on the rise, with all the inappropriate behavior that goes with it, mostly due to frustrations from the economic downturn. But this doesn’t excuse having a sense of personal responsibility when it comes to respecting each other’s boundaries. So have fun at this year’s round of parties, but always be safe!