HR Hero Line

Plan a holiday party that makes merry and avoids ghosts of revelries past

Everybody’s heard the office party horror stories—some merrymakers get drunk, unfortunate comments are made, even more unfortunate outfits are worn, and sometimes somebody even gets hurt. It’s enough to make the human resources department want to retreat to the North Pole until mid-January. 

Solutions to party woes do exist, however, and even if the party already has been planned, it’s not too late to make a few tweaks designed to ward off trouble.

Alcohol or no alcohol?
Deciding how or whether to serve alcohol is a vital part of planning. Jodi R. Bohr, an attorney with Gallagher & Kennedy, P.A. in Phoenix, Arizona, wrote on how to avoid a holiday party hangover in the December 2014 issue of Arizona Employment Law Letter. She advises hiring a professional bartender and giving him or her the authority to decide when someone needs to be cut off.

Limiting alcohol choices to beer and wine rather than serving hard liquor may be advisable, Bohr wrote. Serving a meal or making plenty of other food available also helps. She also suggests providing partygoers with a limited number of drink tickets to discourage overindulging.

A tip included in a December 2013 Wisconsin Employment Law Letter article by Timothy M. Barber and Tyler K. Wilkinson, attorneys with Axley Brynelson LLP in Madison, Wisconsin, suggests using drink tickets and then switching to a cash bar at parties where alcohol is served. Providing transportation for anyone who has had too much to drink is another good idea, either in the form of free cab rides or conscientious managers who volunteer to drive an intoxicated employee home.

Keeping bad behavior at bay
Sexual harassment is another concern in party planning. An article in the December 2014 issue of Missouri Employment Law Letter reminds party planners that the relaxed setting of a party makes employees more likely “to become more friendly and touchy with each other, especially when the alcohol is flowing freely.”

Just one incidence of inappropriate touching can spark a lawsuit if it’s sufficiently serious, the article states. “What may appear to be harmless touching, flirting, or joking could lead to a harassment claim,” the article says, and sexual harassment can be committed by either women or men toward others of the opposite or same sex.

The article reminds employers to conduct a prompt investigation if someone makes a complaint of inappropriate behavior. “You may be able to limit your liability if, among other things, you take prompt and reasonable care to prevent and correct any sexual harassment,” the article states.

An article in the December 9, 2013, issue of California Employment Law Letter reminds employers that employees often think they can say or do things at a holiday party that they would never do during regular work activities. “Remember, even though your party may take place after work hours and off work premises, it most likely would still be considered a work-related event for legal purposes (meaning employer liability for sexual harassment),” Matthew A. Goodin, an attorney with Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. in San Francisco, wrote.

Décor and dress
Christmas inspires a variety of ways to deck the halls, but mistletoe has no place in the decorating scheme, Goodin says, since kissing under the mistletoe is another invitation for a sexual harassment claim.

Goodin also advises party planners to be sensitive to religious differences when planning decorations. “A Christmas tree or Christmas decorations may make employees of certain religions feel excluded,” Goodin wrote. “You may certainly allow holiday decorations in the office and at the holiday party, but it must not look like you’re favoring one religion over another.”

Dress codes and other employee conduct policies apply to out-of-office holiday events, and it’s a good idea to review rules with employees before the party by sending an email or memo summarizing relevant policies, according to Bonnie M. Boryca, an attorney with Erickson & Sederstrom, P.C. in Omaha, Nebraska. She wrote on holiday parties in the December 2014 issue of Nebraska Employment Law Letter.

“To prevent employees from showing up in inappropriate attire, hold the party right after business hours.” Boryca wrote. “That may encourage them to come in their ordinary work attire, which also provides a reminder that their conduct at the party reflects on their professional lives.”

More tips
The December 2014 issue of Missouri Employment Law Letter includes a list of 10 tips to hold down party liability:

  1. Remind employees that attendance is voluntary.
  2. Before the party, send a memo advising employees to act responsibly and reminding them that the company’s harassment and substance abuse policies apply to their behavior at off-site company parties as well as at the workplace.
  3. Remind managers that they’re responsible for monitoring the employees, their alcohol intake, and any inappropriate behavior.
  4. Consider inviting spouses or significant others, which generally decreases the likelihood the employees will become intoxicated or engage in harassing behavior.
  5. Check the company’s general liability insurance policy and find out about liability and coverage for off-premises incidents.
  6. Consider making the party a lunch or have the party focused on an activity (such as bowling) to reduce the amount of alcohol likely to be consumed.
  7. Consider serving only nonalcoholic beverages.
  8. If you decide to serve alcohol, don’t serve hard liquor; do serve lots of food; use a cash bar or ticket system rather than an open bar; provide wristbands to prevent underage drinking if minors will be present; hire professional bartenders; provide entertainment so that drinking isn’t the central focus of the event; replace alcohol with coffee well before the end of the event; and provide free taxis, car services, or other transportation.
  9. Don’t even think about hanging mistletoe at the party.
  10. If you see any hint of misconduct by managers or supervisors, step in to stop it pronto.