Once upon a time, office holiday parties were often the source of hazy tales of loosened-tie and shoes-off debauchery or ill-advised comments or actions fueled by copious amounts of 80-proof holiday spirits. No longer, and for good reason. What used to be the stuff of amusing anecdotes or embarrassing regrets isn’t funny anymore – not to society, not to your employees, and not under the law.
Most employees still look forward to the company holiday party, whether it is a modest gathering or extravagant blow-out. But they also expect that their company, supervisors, and colleagues will act with the same respect, responsibility, and consideration that they do throughout the year. That is why employers need to ensure that their party planning includes steps and precautions designed to reduce the likelihood of causing offense or creating liability.
As you deck the office halls this holiday season and prepare a well-deserved good time for your hard-working employees, here are some simple and common-sense tips to keep your party from turning into a jingle bell wreck:
It is a workplace, not a church.
A diverse workforce is comprised of people of different faiths, and the last thing you want to do is make any employee feel uncomfortable, disrespected, or marginalized. Christmas trees aside, keep the religious themes or imagery to a minimum. Even if there was such a thing as a “War on Christmas,” the office is not the right battlefield for it.
If, however, your event does have an overtly religious theme, attendance at the event must be optional. “An employee cannot be forced to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity as a condition of employment,” according to the EEOC.
If non-exempt employees must be there, you must pay them.
If attendance is mandatory, so is pay for non-exempt employees. For example, any celebrations held during the lunch hour or after hours may entitle nonexempt employees to overtime pay if they are required to be there. As a general rule, for this reason as well as for morale, attendance at holiday parties should almost always be an employee’s choice.
Limit the booze or leave it with the pros.
As Homer Simpson once exclaimed, “To Alcohol! The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” While definitely not the solution, copious amounts of free-flowing booze are often the cause of holiday party fiascos, as well as potentially tragic consequences.
If you simply leave bowls of spiked punch and bottles of liquor out and let folks help themselves, or if you have an open bar, keeping an eye on your employees’ consumption can be difficult, as can keeping them from being overserved or overserving themselves. Professional bartenders are trained to spot intoxication and can keep guests from having one too many or alert you to potential issues. Alternatively, consider offering 2-3 drink tickets per guest to limit their consumption.
You’ll also probably be serving food at your party, and that’s a good thing from a safety perspective. Food can slow down the absorption of alcohol in the body. Additionally, have water and non-alcoholic drink options available so your guests can switch from booze if they want to slow down a bit or stop drinking for the night.
Get folks home safely.
The biggest danger from an intoxicated party guest is the possibility that they will drive home drunk. That is why you should have other transportation options available to them, such as the phone numbers of cab companies, or apps like Uber or Lyft. Offer to pay for a ride home (within reason) and make it clear to your employees that it’s okay for them to leave their cars behind.
Go over things beforehand.
It doesn’t make you a Scrooge to remind your employees about company antiharassment, dress code, and other employee conduct policies before the party. A simple email or memo sent in the weeks before the event can help to discourage inappropriate behavior.
Speaking of inappropriate behavior…