Why the office Christmas party is cancelled this year

Mike Pence suddenly makes a lot of sense.

US Vice President Pence famously said he "does not eat alone with women who are not his wife, or attend an event without her, if alcohol will be served."

At the time, it seemed a laughable, loony, ultra-conservative, statement from another backward nutter in the Trump administration.

But that was way back in March.

How things change

Now, smart managers of businesses all over the world are cancelling Christmas parties, looking at their company culture and asking, "are we at risk?"

Smart management is all about risk minimisation. A SWOT analysis of a most businesses would now have to put "sexual harassment crisis" in the threat box, where it was not, in the pre-Burke-Weinstein world.

Take, for example, Owen Cunningham, director at San Francisco's KBM-Hogue design company. "Cancel the holiday party," said Owen, 37. But just until "it has been figured out how men and women should interact."

He told The New York Times he considered himself progressive on gender issues but was thinking more about the behaviour he had seen in the past: "What flirting is okay? Was I ever taking advantage of any meager power I had? You start to wonder."

Still more change yet

I have been in management positions in the past. I love a good Christmas party as much as the next man and woman. Probably more, unfortunately. But I'd absolutely be cancelling the end of year bash this year, and into the foreseeable future.

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I'd also have had conversations with senior managers, male and female, about what we could do to make sure we weren't side-tracked by sexual harassment claims and lawsuits, so we could get on with the business at hand, our business.

We'd develop a simple in-house strategy to avoid a very real threat to our commercial future. It would include:

  • No men and women, alone together, at all. Always have a third party in the room.
  • No more consumption of alcohol at any company or client functions.
  • No flirtation or sexual banter of any kind. It is now a sackable offence.
  • No commentary about another employee's appearance, relationship status or sexual orientation. Also a sackable offence.

No risk, no reason

This is not about sexual politics at all. It's about how smart businesses respond to a significant commercial threat. A couple of lawsuits can easily bring down even a big, robust company. It doesn't matter if the threat is right or wrong, it's just there.

I'd also probably do what men all over the world are doing, quietly conferring with male colleagues and mates about the best, simplest, safest way forward, and think about what we can do to minimise our personal risk, which is no bad thing.

It's like reading the results of Julia Gillard's extraordinary five-year Royal Commission into child abuse and deciding, quite sensibly, from now on, you'll make sure your child is never alone with a Catholic priest. It's a shame, but it sure makes sense.

In the cat house

Bit harsh, you think? The New Yorker's most-read story this year is a 7000-word piece by 20-year-old Kristen Roupenian, called Cat Person.

It's a florid piece, as agonising in content as it is in style, of a "relationship" between 20-year-old girl and a 34-year-old man. They have truly awful sex. She blows him off. He abuses her by text.

(The debate's been thoroughly had, but if you're interested check out the Twitter thread Men React to Cat Person @MenCatPerson. The only thing you'll end up more clear about is that a 280 character statement never convinced anyone of anything).

"It isn't a story about rape or sexual harassment, but about the fine lines that get drawn in human interaction," the New Yorker's fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, told The New York Times.

The story resonated so very loudly around the world because it tapped into the deep confusion surrounding modern sexual politics. It's ultimately about people misreading each other. It went viral for a reason. We're all misreading each other.

Deep uncertainty

No-one knows what to do, how to behave or where the boundaries are. The revolution is happening so very quickly it's leaving most of us behind, blinking in the dust.

The old journalistic adage, "when in doubt, leave it out," applies. A smart manager, when faced with a situation that has even the smallest potential for a negative outcome, will work to avoid that situation.

I stand by my position, stated here before (and thoroughly abused by both the left and right), that if there's going to be some fallout from the amazing, extraordinary, long-overdue, absolutely essential and thrilling #metoo campaign, so be it. It's all about the greater good.

But, in the meantime, Christmas is cancelled.

Merry Christmas.

With more than 25 years in Australian media, Phil Barker has edited NW and Woman's Day magazines, and published such titles as Vogue, GQ, Delicious, InsideOut and Donna Hay. He is a consultant creative director and communications specialist, currently writing a book on "man stuff" for publisher New Holland. He is a regular commentator on the lives and style of Australian men.

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