Don’t Be A Meredith: How to create a safe office holiday party

For many of us, we are planning to attend the first office holiday party since the pandemic. Our social skills might be, well, less honed than before. In fact, we might be more like Meredith now.

Do you remember Meredith from the iconic show, The Office? Meredith was the redhead who traded deals on paper for free steak dinners. But her greatest weakness was, of course, the office holiday party where she would inevitably get way too drunk and do things like set her hair on fire, flash her breasts at the office manager Michael, or do other things that would make Toby in HR want to scream.

As a leader in your organization, we want to tell you about all the things that we wish Meredith had known before the office holiday party.

There are of course the obvious things… like don’t serve raw chicken and don’t call it a Christmas party – inclusivity!

But there are at least three other more nuanced ways to ensure that everyone has a happy, healthy and harassment-free holiday party this year.

  1. Have the conversation

Before the holiday party talk with your team about your expectations of their behavior. Talk about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, what they can do to make it a healthy and safe,  harassment-free holiday party for everyone. It is a key time to make sure that your employees understand your code of conduct. (Well, it is certainly the perfect time to make sure that you have a code of conduct.)

Get your managers and supervisors involved in being role models; remind them that they set the tone and that you are going to need their leadership.

It might even be the perfect time to make sure that your team is up to date on all their anti-harassment training. You can even sign your team up for some online or virtual (or in person) sexual harassment prevention training in preparation for this party – and beyond.

  1. (Re)Consider the Alcohol

While flaming shots of spicy rum are entertaining, we all know that alcohol lowers inhibitions and can lead to more problematic behavior.

One option is to consider NOT serving alcohol at your holiday party. You can use the funds you would have spent on alcohol to hire a performer, or buy lots of shrimp.

That said, alcohol is also not the only reason for bad behavior.

Therefore, if you do have alcohol, consider portions and not offering unlimited free alcohol. Also look out for folks who are drinking to excess, and ensure that people know where to look if they need help during the party.

  1. Know the Four D’s of Being an Upstander

And, just in case something does happen, it is imperative that you – and others – are ready to step in when and if inappropriate behavior happens. For example, when the paper salesman starts drunkenly wandering around with mistletoe, you might want to take them aside and ask them to stop.

There are four key ways that you can be an upstander. Ideally, your team would all learn these interventions prior to the party so that they are ready to stand up in other situations, as well.

The Four D’s are:

DIRECT INTERVENTION: You intervene in the moment to keep a problematic situation from happening or continuing.

  • Interrupt & name the inappropriate behavior specifically: “Hey, Dave, not cool. Nobody wants to hear you talk about Becky’s butt.”
  • Talk to the harasser after the incident “Hey Dave, I’m guessing you were trying to tell Tina that she looked good in her holiday sweater but you were really inappropriate. Did you see how uncomfortable she looked?”

DELEGATE: to someone else who may be better suited to address the situation.

  • Speak to someone else who is observing the interaction in the moment: “Sheryl, your buddy Dave is being completely inappropriate, can you help?”
  • Speak to someone who has influence over Dave after the incident: “Yvonne, I know that you are Dave’s supervisor and he is really crossing the line with Tina.”

DISTRACT: You interrupt the situation without directly confronting the offender.

  • Approach the person doing the harassing with a completely unrelated question: “Wow, Dave, did you see that Meredith’s hair is on fire over there?” Address Dave later about his behavior.
  • Ask the person targeted a question that will remove them from the situation: “Hey Tina, I need a cheesecake bite. Do you want to come with me?”

DELAY: Not sure if the situation warrants interrupting?

  • Make it a point to check in later and validate whatever they may be feeling. “Tina, I heard what Dave said to you earlier and you looked upset by it. How are you doing? I’m a good listener, if you want to talk about it. And if you want to approach Dave yourself or report it to a manager, I can be there for support if you like.”

And no matter what, make sure to take all complaints from the party seriously. If someone says they were harassed, listen to that and start by believing.

Follow these simple tips and your office holiday party will likely be Meredith-free.

Want to ensure that it is healthy and happy for everyone this holiday season? Talk with SAFE Institute about training your staff and your leaders, in addition to reviewing your code of conduct. A SAFE holiday party is a safe holiday party!


Piper Stege Nelson

Piper Stege Nelson

Piper Stege Nelson is a native of Austin, Texas. Prior to joining SAFE, she worked on Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, managing the partnerships and program stewardship. She previously served as Deputy Director of Annie’s List, a political action committee dedicated to increasing the number and success of women in politics in Texas; there she worked with the staff and board to support elected women and identify and train potential candidates. Prior to Annie’s List, Piper Stege Nelson was the Publisher of The Texas Observer, a nonprofit magazine telling the untold stories of Texas. Before that, Nelson worked for the National Democratic Institute in Washington, DC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization building democracy around the world. At NDI she served as the Senior Development Manager and worked with the women’s political participation team. There, she authored a training manual for women contesting the 2008 local elections in Sierra Leone and traveled to Freetown to train candidates, resulting in a 13% increase in the number of women elected to local office. Piper also worked for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; served on a number of Texas and New Mexico state political campaigns; and was legislative director for Texas State Representative Jessica Farrar. After graduating from Carleton College, she was awarded a Fulbright grant, then went on to earn her master’s degree from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. She recently served on the Austin Commission for Immigrant Affairs and on the Lee Elementary PTA Executive Board, and currently serves as the Board Chair of AIDS Services of Austin. She and her husband love being in Austin with their two kiddos and dog, Astro.