The annual office holiday party is a time to let loose and celebrate with colleagues outside of a typical workday. It gives everyone a chance to unwind and share a laugh, often while getting to know each other outside of a stressful work environment. These parties typically include indulgences of good food, music, and gift exchanges, all of which are washed down with some delicious holiday cheer in the form of mixed drinks, wine, and beer.
Unfortunately, it’s not entirely uncommon for these annual celebrations to result in employee complaints or a costly workplace lawsuit. But don’t despair! This doesn’t mean that you have to turn into the Grinch who cancelled the holiday party. By understanding your legal obligations and taking some simple precautions, you can still mix business with pleasure while minimizing your legal exposure.
Many employers assume that an off-site, company-sponsored party precludes them from worrying about enforcing workplace policies. Regardless of location, employers still must provide a safe environment and protect employees from unlawful conduct such as harassment and bullying. In fact, employers may be held legally liable for the actions of employees who participate in unlawful behavior at any company-sponsored event.
Use a pre-party office meeting to remind employees of acceptable behavior. Explain your intent to provide a celebration of their efforts, and don’t be afraid to clarify your expectations of appropriate party conduct. Ensure that everyone is up to date on your harassment policy and ensure supervisors are properly trained to handle violations that may arise. Above all else, make certain everyone understands that inappropriate conduct of any kind will not be tolerated.
Although eliminating alcohol consumption would undoubtedly prevent a majority of workplace lawsuits, many employees appreciate an opportunity to enjoy a cocktail on the boss’s dime. If you choose to serve adult beverages, but also want to minimize risk, you have some options. For starters, you can enforce a strict alcohol moderation policy for company-sponsored events by limiting the amount of drinks guests can consume. This can be done through the issuing of drink tickets per guest, with no opportunity to purchase additional alcoholic drinks. Another option is to serve beer or wine instead of hard liquor, which may intoxicate your guests more quickly. Cutting off the alcohol service at least one hour prior to the end of the party is another popular practice. Of course, it is never recommended to have members of management serving alcohol to guests at a work-sponsored function. Instead, it’s advisable to hire outside service providers to handle all bartending duties.
If, despite your best efforts, some of your employees have overindulged, cut down on liability by offering company provided transportation to get them home safely. Encourage employees to take advantage of this guilt-free by handing out taxi vouchers so they don’t have to do a walk of shame to ask their manager for permission. Depending upon your party’s venue, it might also make sense to offer a hotel reservation at a discounted rate for party guests. It’s well worth the investment to ensure your employees arrive at their post-party destination safely after they’ve consumed alcohol at a company-sponsored event.
Most of us have made the mistake of having a little too much to drink on an empty stomach. The result isn’t always pretty. Don’t let this happen to your guests; make sure you serve plenty of food from the party’s beginning until the very end. Having plenty of hearty options to absorb the alcohol is always smart.
Above all else, don’t forget that your holiday office party should be an event where everyone feels comfortable and welcomed. By taking some proactive precautions, it is possible to still have a fabulous event while protecting your business from a workplace lawsuit. Cheers!