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“Here’s the recipe for a safe office holiday party”

BizTimes Milwaukee News Blog Christopher L. Nickels, Sean M. Scullen

Once again, the office holiday party is at hand, a time when socializing among co-workers plus alcohol can create an environment ripe for post-party headaches for employers. Holiday parties are a long-standing tradition that can create good cheer and reward a year-long effort. As a work-sponsored function, the challenge is to keep employees safe and limit company liability, while trying to ensure that everyone has a good time.

With thoughtful planning, however, employers can avoid or limit liability while still ensuring a merry time is had by all. Here are several tips employers should consider when planning upcoming holiday celebrations:

  • Consider planning the party off-premises, especially if alcohol is provided. Select a venue and atmosphere that is right for your organization. Both the location and time of day can play a big role in setting the tone. A weekday, mid-afternoon event in a ballroom suggests something more formal (and calls for less debauchery) than a nighttime event at a bar or club.
  • Consider reinventing the concept of the party — are alcoholic beverages necessary or would employees enjoy things such as an indoor magic show, a group outing to an amusement park or a volunteer activity with a local charity? Consider, too, inviting spouses or making the event family friendly, as doing so may take the focus off of drinking and awkward and inebriated mingling with co-workers.
  • Avoid controversial themes or locations (such as sexy Santa) — and skip the mistletoe unless you want to encourage bad behavior.
  • While some employers choose not to serve alcohol, many do. Limiting alcohol consumption is one of the better ways to prevent injuries, property damage and sexual or other harassment incidents.
  • If you serve alcohol, use professional bartenders, and instruct them not to serve anyone who appears intoxicated and to check IDs if your party will include underage individuals. Allowing employees to serve themselves or mix their own drinks is generally a recipe for disaster.
  • A cash bar, or providing limited drink tickets may limit excessive alcohol consumption. Serve plenty of non-alcoholic beverages and stop serving alcohol well before the party ends.
  • Arrange for alternate transportation in advance as some party-goers may need other ways to get home. Encourage employees to use it if they consume alcohol.
  • Just because the party may be off-premises or outside of normal work hours does not mean that work rules do not apply. Consider sending a message before the party that encourages employees to have fun but reminds them that policies regarding harassment, alcohol use, safety issues and dress code still apply. If alcoholic beverages will be served at a company party, employees need to be well aware of their obligation to act and drink responsibly.
  • Remember that the rules apply to all employees, including managers and supervisors. The behavior of those at the top will set an example for others in the company. If bad behavior is reported, do not be dismissive just because it occurred at a social event. Treat it as any other employee complaint.
  • Make clear in your communications to employees that attendance is optional. Making attendance mandatory creates a variety of legal issues, from wage and hour questions to worker’s compensation issues to religious discrimination concerns. The event is supposed to be fun, not a chore.
  • Designate managers or supervisors to monitor the party and be on the lookout for employees who have had too much to drink or who have flaring tempers. Brief these managers in advance on how to steer employees away from situations that could be construed as harassing or too heated. Designate a member of human resources to hear concerns or deal with situations as they occur.

Remember, common sense and good intentions can go out the door when people start to celebrate, and drunken antics can quickly be posted or tweeted for the world to see. If the behavior is bizarre or interesting enough, it could attract unwarranted media attention. Ultimately, nothing can guarantee against holiday party problems, but taking these steps and considering these issues will reduce the risk of facing an unpleasant holiday party hangover in the form of employee complaints or lawsuits. 

Originally published in BizTimes Milwaukee News Blog, December 11, 2013