Don't coax Santa into leaving your company lumps of coal because of your holiday party. (Photo by Duncan Harris, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
As the holiday season approaches, many companies throw parties for their employees without taking steps to minimize liabilities.
While holiday parties can be a great morale booster, they can be filled with potential problems — especially when alcohol is served. Liquor plus a party atmosphere can be a recipe for disaster, such as religious discrimination claims, sexual harassment and alcohol-caused injuries to individuals and property.
To mitigate potential liability and prepare everyone to participate in the party, here are some things learning leaders should communicate to event planners and employees to keep yuletide festivities from creating problems that last into the New Year.
1. A broader reason for the season. Consider calling the festivities a “holiday” party rather than the office “Christmas party.” While not necessarily unlawful, hosting an office “Christmas party” where attendance is impliedly mandatory may offend employees who do not celebrate Christmas and could lead to claims of religious discrimination or create a religiously hostile work environment. An office “Christmas party” generally will not support a claim for religious discrimination, but it may be used as evidence to support a larger claim of religious discrimination. Thus, it’s not only important to have holiday festivities be religiously neutral, make attendance voluntary.
2. It came upon a midweek, midday clear. Consider having the event during the workday so that alcohol does not need to be served, or have it during the week after work so employees will limit their drinking because they will have to be at work the next morning. Additionally, having the party at the office or a restaurant rather than a hotel will help to limit the party hours and easy access to extended post-party misconduct. If alcohol is served, limit the amount of individual alcohol consumption by having drink tickets, consider serving only beer and wine and hire a professional bartender who has the exclusive authority to pour drinks and cut people off.
3. Skip on the mistletoe. Companies should have and disseminate a strong policy prohibiting sexual harassment at work and at work-sponsored events, such as parties, picnics and conventions. Remind employees they are attending a company-sponsored event, not a personal party or a club, and should behave in a work-appropriate manner. Meaning sexual harassment is prohibited, regardless of whether it occurs in the workplace or at a company party.
4. Secret Santa: nice — secret policies: naughty. Make sure employees know the workplace substance abuse policy and that the policy addresses the use of alcoholic beverages in any work-related situation and office social function. Re-issue and post the rules prior to the party on break room bulletin boards and through office email, staff meetings and paycheck envelopes to communicate policies and concerns.
5. Enjoy your wassail responsibly. Develop guidelines to let employees have a good time, but keep the event under control. For instance, give employees instructions regarding the drink ticket system to be used, and let them know ahead of time the bartender will have the exclusive authority to pour drinks and cut people off should they become too merry. Also, let employees know the bartender will enforce a “no shots” rule. Employees should be made aware that alcohol service will end before the party officially ends. Further, remind employees there will be plenty non-alcoholic beverages available, and that they should make sure, when consuming any alcohol at the party, to eat foods rich in starch and protein, which stay in the stomach longer and slow down the absorption of alcohol.
6. Merry management. Remind supervisors that they always wear the “manager” hat and are still responsible for enforcing company policies during the party. Assign individual managers to chaperone the party and monitor misbehavior or intoxication. These managers should have the authority to intervene if conduct becomes inappropriate or alcohol consumption becomes excessive. Further, post gatekeepers to monitor attendees as they exit the party. Let employees know ahead of the party that a chaperone and gatekeeper system will be used.
7. Don’t drink and sleigh-drive. Send out a memorandum separately or with the holiday party invitation that states that no one should drink alcohol at the party and then drive. The memorandum should discuss drinking responsibly at the party, and establish arrangements for alternative transportation for intoxicated individuals. The memorandum also should advise all employees that the company will pay for taxis from the party to their home, if necessary.