We’re in the last month of 2018, which may feel like mayhem for many business owners. It’s a difficult time. There are fewer work days, yet the client and customer deadlines remain; you’re evaluating employees and business year-end goals; you’re finalizing 2019 goals and strategies to meet those goals; and then there are the parties. There are parties you’re attending and the one you’re putting together for your employees.
As you recognize (that’s why you’re throwing one) holiday parties are valuable. According to the Center for Management & Organization Effectiveness, a holiday office party could improve company culture in the following ways:
- It represents the preferred company culture in a light way;
- It unites office subcultures;
- It provides opportunities for recognition;
- It gives a morale boost; and
- It allows employees to interact with executives and upper management.
But as a business owner, you walk a tightrope. You’re worried about putting on an office holiday party that is enjoyable for employees and positively contributes to the company culture on the one hand and making sure that things don’t get out of hand. This is especially true in today’s culture where people are hyper-aware of sexual harassment. Misconduct that people might have let slide a decade or even just a few years ago, will no longer be swept under the rug.
What is an employer to do?
This checklist to hosting an office holiday party can help.
☑ Address employer-sponsored social functions in your handbook
Your harassment policy should specifically address company-sponsored social events. In particular, consider providing specific examples of unacceptable behavior at these functions and remind employees that these policies exist. A short memo pre-holiday party may help as a reminder for everyone to be on their best behavior.
If you do gift exchanges, remind employees that risqué or adult-themed gifts should not be exchanged with co-workers (unless your business is in the adult industry).
☑ Skip the Mistletoe
This should be self-explanatory.
☑ Host the holiday party at a restaurant or other off-site location
If serving alcohol. Consider hosting the holiday party at an establishment with a liquor license and where alcohol is served by professional bartenders with experience responding to guests who are consuming alcohol to excess.
☑ Hire a professional bartender or caterer
If the holiday party is hosted on company premises, consider hiring a professional bartender or caterer to serve any alcoholic beverages.
Confirm that the caterer carries liability insurance and instruct bartenders or wait staff not to serve drinks to anyone who is visibly intoxicated. Employees should not be permitted to stand in as bartenders or otherwise serve drinks to co-workers.
☑ Limit the amount of alcohol that will be served
You can do so by:
- providing a limited number of drink tickets or limiting the time during which alcohol will be served;
- providing entertainment to shift the focus of the event away from alcohol to something else; and
- making a variety of non-alcoholic beverages and food available as an alternative to alcoholic beverages.
☑ Provide alternative transportation
Consider providing transportation or reimbursing employees for rides from company-sponsored events at which alcohol is served. The prevalence of ride-sharing services makes this much easier today.
☑ Encourage employees to look out for intoxicated co-workers
Encourage employees to notify management if another employee appears overly intoxicated; and consider designating certain employees as “spotters” to look out for colleagues who may have had too much to drink. I would caution against designating non-exempt employees as spotters to avoid claims that they were required to work off the clock and therefore are entitled to additional compensation.
☑ Check if you’re insured
Employers may purchase insurance covering Dram Shop or liquor law liability. Review their existing coverage before purchasing a new policy because a comprehensive general liability policy may provide sufficient coverage.
☑ Separate work from play
Dissociate the holiday function from employees’ jobs by:
- letting employees know that there is no business purpose for the event and attendance is not mandatory; and
- hosting the event off employer premises.
☑ Don’t let non-exempt employees work
- Inform employees that attendance at the party is voluntary.
- Hold the party outside normal business hours.
- Refrain from engaging in any business during the event, including:
- speeches about business matters; and
- distribution of bonuses or performance awards.
- Avoid asking employees to perform any specific functions at the party for the benefit of the employer to avoid claims that they were required to work off the clock.
It may look like I’ve taken all the fun out of the office holiday party, but the work you do in advance will ensure that everyone does in fact have a happy holiday party. You’ll breathe a sigh of relief the following day when you look back and don’t have to say “gosh, I really hope s/he doesn’t sue.”
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