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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, while getting to know each other outside of the stressful office environment. These parties often include an indulgence on 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 as uncommon as you’d like to believe, for these annual celebrations to result in employee complaints or a costly lawsuit. Don’t despair. This doesn’t mean that you have to turn into the “Grinch” boss who cancelled the annual holiday party. By understanding your legal obligations and taking some simple precautions, you can still mix business with pleasure while minimizing your legal exposure.

Here, there and everywhere; the venue doesn’t change your legal obligations.

Many employers assume that an off-site company sponsored party precludes them from worrying about enforcing workplace policies. Regardless of location, employers must still 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 work sponsored event.

Protect your employees – and your company – by setting clear boundaries.

Use a pre-party office meeting to remind employees of acceptable behavior. Explain your intent of providing 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.

To serve, or not to serve, that is the question.

Although eliminating alcohol consumption would undoubtedly prevent most holiday party complaints, 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 other 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 in comparison. 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 up alcohol to guests at a work sponsored function. Instead, it’s advisable to hire outside service providers to handle all bartending duties.

Get them home safely by providing transportation if needed.

If – despite your best efforts – some of your employees have overindulged, cut down on liability by offering company provided transportation to get them safely home. Encourage employees to use transportation 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 safely to their post-party destination after they’ve consumed alcohol at a company sponsored event.

Don’t forget the food.

Most of us have made the mistake of having one too many drinks on an empty stomach. The result isn’t always pretty. Don’t let this happen to your guests, and 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 liability. Cheers!

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