Holiday parties look a little different this year. Seyfarth at Work’s President, Philippe Weiss, discusses how to take the risk out of your company’s virtual party.
The year 2020 has brought us many unusual firsts – including this being the first time many organizations will be holding virtual holiday parties on Zoom or other such platforms. These online events are already producing a spike in real-world risks.
Calls from companies with concerns about virtual partygoers’ conduct are up over 200 percent. Given that close to three-quarters of companies planning events have opted to do so remotely this year, I see potentially serious legal, financial and career impacts resulting from:
Inappropriate Images: People’s home Zoom screens have revealed holiday-themed religious or risqué wall décor. As an example, one recent partygoer’s Zoom screen showed a huge “God Almighty” mural with dancing prophets on the wall behind her, while another’s revealed Santa- and Elf-themed lingerie models. The two were asked to reposition their cameras and later received discreet follow-up calls from HR. At another company, an overly creative employee shared a video of team-member avatars hugging and kissing one another under a cartoon mistletoe. She was disciplined for sharing the video, as well as for using a company computer to create it.
Salacious Sidebars: Employees have engaged in private “side chats” involving offensive remarks or memes. Parties, even virtual ones, enable people to feel more relaxed/casual and become bolder behind what they perceive as a “digital buffer.” As an example: At one recent virtual party hosted by a marketing firm, several participants were privately ranking their co-workers on “Zoom Hotness,” including placing their colleagues into attractiveness categories of either “Close-Up” or “Camera Off!”
Pre-Partying: Since employees will typically be logging-in from home, many may have already imbibed some eggnog beforehand. (They often wrongly assume that any outward signs of alcohol impairment will be less apparent on a Zoom screen.)
In any event, in my experience, drinking is involved in over 75 percent of holiday party harassment and conduct violations, be they in live or virtual settings.
As an example, at one book publishing client’s Zoom party, tipsy participants ridiculed the tech literacy of a pair of late-arriving 60+ year-old colleagues with such comments as: “Ted and Laura, we were shocked that you two dinosaurs even knew how to log in at all.”
Careless Camera Shots: Pre-party inebriation, combined with the casual approach to the event, also increases the possibility that carelessly positioned laptops might reveal more skin than anticipated, or accidentally accompany the user to the bathroom.
3 Tips for “Zoomifying” a Party Without Mortifying Results
1. Set Some Structure
Pre-plan activities that limit “free-for-all discussions.” Perhaps plan a group quiz/polling contest about lesser-known company history facts. Zoom/virtual parties are also a great time to present online recognition certificates, as well as announce that team-wide bonuses are coming (but make sure that no one is excluded). Some Zoom or video party planners have safely included a real-time cooking activity in the agenda; others reserved an online group escape room. One toy company pre-circulated instructions to construct gingerbread models of the company HQ and a key product in the toy line and asked all willing participants to reveal the results of their individual construction efforts on screen.
2. Manage the Mute Button
Assign one tech-savvy manager to mute participant conversations that begin veering off-course and into risky or potentially offensive territory.
3. Give Guidelines
A few days before the event, circulate a team memo stressing that your organizational “boundaries” and policies extend to whatever is shown or said virtually at the upcoming party. Remind participants to dress professionally, to pre-check their Zoom-room walls for questionable background images and to keep cameras stationary throughout the shindig. One of our tech clients decided to pre-share a flashing fireworks-themed Zoom background that participants downloaded and used for the party. It also occasionally flashed a gentle reminder for all: “HAPPY HOLIDAYS – ENJOY OUR REVELRY, RESPECTFULLY!”