Dos and Don’ts of Office Holiday Parties

It is a rare year that Employers Council isn’t hired to conduct a few post-holiday-party investigations. As you get ready to host your party, keep the following dos and don’ts in mind so you can have a great party with no regrets.

Don’t offer an open bar or a self-service option.

Serving alcohol at a holiday party is a potential liability, yet most employees feel that alcohol should be served. It helps people relax and puts them in a festive mood. But to reduce potential liability, it is important to control the service and consumption.

To control service, use real bartenders who can prevent underage drinking and shut off anyone who appears intoxicated.

To control consumption, an employer should avoid an open bar or a self-service option. Drink tickets are useful for controlling the flow of alcohol. However, expect an underground economy to quickly develop, allowing non-drinkers to fence their tickets to your more alcohol-appreciative employees.

Another strategy involves limiting the time the bar is available. For example, provide bar service during the appetizers, but not during the main course. A cash bar may help deter employees from over indulging. Alcohol service should also stop at least an hour before the end of the event. Of course, make non-alcoholic drink options available, preferably for free.

Do offer food.

Always serve food so revelers are not drinking on empty stomachs. Offer a variety of foods and avoid those that will make people thirsty and want to drink more.

Do offer alternative transportation and lodging arrangements for employees who feel they drank too much.

Offer options for overnight accommodations at the party location and/or alternative transportation home, such as Uber, Lyft, or a taxi service, to employees who do not feel they are able to drive themselves.

Don’t make attendance mandatory.

Since this is a party, let employees decide whether to attend. Making the party voluntary conveniently sidesteps the issue of “compensable work time” under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Employers may also want to hold the party off-site, outside of normal work hours, and not invite customers or clients for the same reasons. Voluntary attendance can also minimize workers’ compensation risk.

Do allow spouses to attend.

To cut down on costs, employers sometimes invite only employees to the holiday party. However, inviting spouses and/or families encourages good behavior. Employees are less likely to overindulge and act inappropriately.

Don’t hang mistletoe.

To help employees stay out of trouble, don’t hang mistletoe! We all know that it can add to the festive ambiance; however, employees lose their inhibitions when drinking, and you don’t want a sexual harassment case on your hands.

Don’t call your party a Christmas party.

Do be inclusive of all backgrounds and religions.

Calling your office party a Christmas party is advocating one viewpoint, which is not only insensitive, but could lead to civil rights complaints (we’ve seen it happen). Consider Holiday Party or Year-end Celebration or Gathering. You want to make sure that you are inclusive of different religions, cultures, and viewpoints.

Do send a memo about expectations at the party beforehand.

It is best to clarify your expectations of employees and guests before the party starts. Send a memo to employees stating that the company wants everyone to have fun at the party and to drink responsibly and act appropriately. You can find sample language in our FYI Health and Safety: Managing Liability for Recreational, Athletic and Social Activities.

Do ask managers to lead by example.

Ask managers to be on their best behavior and to lead by example. If managers are staying in control, employees are less likely to act out. You can also designate party monitors to “work” the party, keeping an eye out for inappropriate behavior including obviously intoxicated employees or guests. The monitors should have the authority to intervene if a situation appears to be developing and know what alternatives to offer or whom to contact if a situation is clearly getting out of hand.

Do investigate all complaints afterwards.

Make sure to investigate any complaints arising from conduct at the party. Failure to respond to complaints can lead to even greater liability. Take corrective action for inappropriate behavior by employees consistent with your policies and procedures. Even if the party is after hours, employees need to understand that their actions at the party can lead to disciplinary action and even termination.

Do have fun and celebrate your successes!

Remember, this is a celebration of all the hard work put in by your employees over the past year. Remind them how important they are to the success of the organization. You can also reflect on company achievements and successes such as revenue and customer service goals. Take the time to recognize the moments that are worth celebrating!

Of course, should things go awry, call Employers Council right away. Wishing you a safe and happy Holiday Season!