Office party

Holiday Office Party – ‘Tis the season for treading more carefully

Right about now, most companies are gearing up for the holiday office  party, a time honored tradition that employees often look forward to. It’s not only a good way to end the year, and for a company to acknowledge its staff, but also a way to increase camaraderie and engagement.

Employers, though, are treading ever more carefully around these annual festivities, especially this year if a recent survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas is any indication.

Conducted in October 2018, the annual survey by the Chicago-based outplacement consultancy found that only 62 percent of those surveyed (150 HR practitioners across the U.S) said their company would be having a holiday party.

This figure may seem insignificant, unless you compare it to previous years noted company Vice President Andrew Challenger. “We have never seen so many companies report that they never have holiday parties,” he said. “The number could be due to several factors, including potential liability following the #MeToo movement.”

But given the fact that most employees appreciate and enjoy these events, is avoidance the best approach? Not necessarily. If it’s liability a company is worried about, there are many precautions it can take to minimize this.

Encourage Responsible Drinking

If the event will include alcohol, which is usually the case, employers can do the following:

  • Communicate in advance that employees are expected to drink responsibly.
  • Offer food whenever alcohol is served (for instance, during cocktail hour), as well as a variety of non-alcoholic drinks like juices, hot chocolate, and mocktails.
  • Don’t serve anything (like punch) that limits someone’s ability to gauge how much alcohol he/she is consuming.
  • Plan entertainment and activities that will take the focus off alcohol.
  • Minimize drinking by providing employees with a limited number of drink vouchers.
  • Always use trained bartenders to serve alcohol, even if the party is at a private home, and don’t allow employees to serve coworkers or themselves.
  • Ask the bartenders and wait staff, as applicable, to cut off anyone who appears to be intoxicated and be sure they’re aware of any underage employees at the event (interns, for instance).
  • Close the bar well before the party ends and serve coffee, tea, snacks, desert, etc.
  • If anyone has overindulged, be sure he/she won’t be driving home. If there’s no designated driver, provide free ride services (Uber, Lyft, or a cab).
  • Discourage informal after-party gatherings.

Other issues

Even if no alcohol is served at a company-hosted event, there are other areas of potential liability. Foremost among these, which we’re all now well aware of, is sexual harassment. To avoid any issues in this area, employees should be reminded that the company’s sexual harassment policy applies at all company events, even if they’re after hours and offsite.

Physical safety can be another concern. A company may have less liability for an icy sidewalk, etc., if the event is held at a restaurant or other public place, but if it’s at a private home, it’s important to eliminate any potential hazards. Regardless of location, though, employee safety should always be the top concern.

Last, but not least, be aware of compliance issues linked to equal opportunity laws. This means avoiding events with a religious theme and making reasonable efforts to accommodate dietary restrictions to avoid discrimination claims.