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Cocktails & Co-Workers: 10 Helpful Hints to Avoid Disaster at This Year’s Company Holiday

With the holidays just around the corner, many employers plan to host a holiday party.  Holiday parties are a great way to show appreciation for employees, enhance teamwork, and allow employees to form a different type of bond aside from what they do on a day-to-day basis in the 9-to-5 world.  Whereas these events intend to enhance workplace spirits, holiday parties can land employers in hot water if they are not careful.  Before planning your holiday party, consider the potential liabilities that could accompany your event.  Many situations that could result in liability for your company can easily be prevented with some foresight.

Here are some steps you can take to protect both your company and your employees:

Limit the hours.  Start the event right after work so employees don’t have the chance to pre-party before they arrive.  The party should also be limited to about three hours to avoid letting any guest become too intoxicated.

Make the party voluntary.  While it would be nice for all of your employees to attend the holiday party, don’t make it a requirement.  Remember that some employees may already have plans or other commitments.  It might be a good idea to make the party during the week so it is less likely employees will have conflicting plans and because employees are less likely to binge during the week.  Also, it could possibly create wage confusion and problems if the party is mandatory for employees to attend.

Limit the alcohol.  Although this might sound obvious, many people do not know what limiting alcohol looks like at a party.  While completely nixing alcohol at your party will minimize a lot of risk, employers do not have to go that far to reduce liability.  One suggestion is to prohibit executives from drinking or limit them to just one alcoholic beverage.  This isn’t to say that executives can’t have fun, but employers want executives to be the eyes and ears of your company to ensure everyone else is safe and on their best behavior.  Another idea is to hire professional bartenders or work with your vendor to set parameters for serving alcohol.  It might be a good idea to instruct bartenders not to serve shots, serve light pours, or have a designated cut-off time.  Employers may choose to host a cash bar where employees purchase the alcohol.  A cash bar can reduce consumption and can reduce the risk of a claim that the employer directly provided alcohol to employees.

Provide rides.  Employers should think about ways to get their employees home safely.  Arrange for designated drivers or work out an arrangement with a local hotel with a shuttle service or a car service to offer discounted rates to all employees.  Even if you don’t plan to or want to provide a taxi service, don’t think twice about calling and paying for one if an intoxicated employee plans to drive himself home.  From a cost-benefit point of view, the cab fare may be the best money your company has ever spent.

Instruct leaders of your company to set the example.  Leaders and executives of your company should set the tone for the holiday party.  It is important that they understand that they set the example of professional behavior at your holiday party.  Additionally, someone should monitor the party to stop problems and make sure nothing gets out of hand.

Communicate expectations ahead of time.  It is a good idea to send an office-wide memo a few days before the party to let employees know you look forward to a fun party and reminding them that it is still a work setting in which they are expected to exhibit decorum and professionalism.  This memo should also include the company’s policies on harassment and conduct as well as the dress code.

Invite the spouses.  Many employers choose to allow employees to bring their spouse or a guest to the holiday party.  A spouse or partner can act as someone’s “better half” and can help employees to make better decisions.

Do more than serve drinks.  Planned activities can keep guests from making constant trips to the bar and can keep a party from spinning out of control.  An activity, such as a white elephant gift exchange, can let employees interact in a way they normally wouldn’t interact with each other.

Excluding the mistletoe, decorations are okay.  Holiday decorations can create a festive atmosphere at your party, but forget about hanging mistletoe.  This could lead to all sorts of harassment issues and potential complaints.

Consider an alternative.  Some employers may altogether want to reduce risks associated with evening events by throwing a casual day party or by doing something more low-key such as volunteering together for a charity or holding a family-friendly affair at a bowling alley.  These kinds of activities still allow employees to get into the holiday spirit without having to endure the higher-risk party atmosphere.


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