Question:

I know it seems early, but our office holiday party is right around the corner! I am trying to plan our party and am wondering what suggestions you have for planning a fun, safe event for my employees, while at the same time protecting my business. I always worry about liability associated with “extracurricular” activities like these.

Answer:

It is definitely that time of year again, and you are not alone in considering your options when it comes to planning an office holiday party. Many employers want to do something fun for their employees at this time of year, but are concerned about keeping their employees—and themselves—safe and happy. Here are some guidelines for hosting a successful office get-together:

Alcohol consumption. The excessive consumption of alcohol seems to be the greatest cause of concern when it comes to employer-hosted parties. The simplest way to address this concern is simply not to serve alcohol at your holiday party. However, if you do choose to have alcoholic beverages available, you can limit overconsumption—and therefore prevent problems—by doing some or all of the following: charging for drinks; providing a limited number of drink tickets to each attendee; offering a wide selection of non-alcoholic beverages; and stopping the service of alcohol one to two hours before the end of the party. Some companies have a manager or supervisor monitor the alcohol consumption during the party, in order to identify (and stop) any problems with overconsumption before they get out of hand. You may also want to circulate your company’s drug and alcohol policy before the party, in order to remind your employees that excessive drinking and intoxication is not tolerated.

  • Location. Having your party off-site (i.e., not at your place of business) can help alleviate concerns about liability. This is because the restaurant or hotel where you have your party will assume responsibility for the service of your employees, thereby relieving you of that responsibility. Moreover, having an experienced and professional bartender makes it less likely that your employees will become intoxicated, as the bartender will know when to refuse service if someone has had too much to drink.
  • Attendance. Attendance at your holiday party should be optional, and your employees should be told that they are not required to attend. They should also be told in advance whether spouses, significant others, and family members are welcome to attend the party. This lets your employees know what to expect, and also allows them to arrange for childcare if necessary. Including family members often discourages employees from drinking too much and tends to keep the party from getting out of control. You should also consider whether your party will take place during regular work hours.
  • Transportation. It is always a good idea to arrange for transportation when you are hosting an event that involves alcohol. Employees should be encouraged to designate a sober driver, or to avail themselves of taxis, shuttles, or other transportation provided by the employer. In addition, you may want to consider appointing a manager or supervisor to look for individuals who are visibly intoxicated, and to ensure that they do not drive themselves home.
  • Harassment. You may also want to remind your employees of your company’s anti-harassment policies, and that any conduct in violation of that policy may be cause for discipline or termination. Employers must remember that they may still be liable for harassment and discrimination by their employees even if the unlawful conduct occurs after hours and/or off-duty.
  • Decorations. When planning your party, you should consider your employees’ various cultural and religious beliefs. If you do put up decorations, they should be something neutral (e.g., snowflakes, icicles, snowmen, etc.), and nothing overtly religious. This will help prevent anyone from being offended, and will help ensure that everyone feels included in the celebration.
  • Food. Having your event catered, or holding it at a restaurant, means that there will be food available to your employees. Not only will they surely appreciate this, but eating helps to counteract the effects of alcohol consumption and can help prevent party attendees from becoming intoxicated. When planning your menu you should take into account the different cultures and religions that may be observed by your employees, which could have different dietary requirements. It is therefore a good idea to provide a variety of foods for your party, including some vegetarian options.

Following these guidelines will help you anticipate and deal with the problems that most commonly arise with regard to holiday parties, and will help ensure that everyone on your guest list has a good time celebrating this holiday season.
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