[Work Place] It's Holiday Party Time!

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December 11, 2003

It’s hard to believe that the holiday season has again descended upon us. In many workplaces, December is a month set aside to celebrate the past year’s milestones and accomplishments and to recognize and thank employees for their contributions. When it comes to parties, the choices are unlimited. Some businesses celebrate with elaborate gatherings in beautiful restaurants or other venues and invite the employees’ friends and family members. Others have low-key employee luncheons, picnics or get-togethers at the boss’ home. Regardless of the type of celebration or the location, parties have been known to boost morale, build team spirit and help create a more family feeling at work.

Of course, oftentimes alcohol is served at company parties and along with alcohol comes relaxation and with relaxation comes...well, you fill in the blank. Suffice it to say that many workers view office parties mixed with alcohol as a time when the general rules of decent conduct don’t apply. It’s an unfortunate reality — but an office party can turn into a liability for an employer.

Consider this — an employee has several drinks at the party, leaves and causes an automobile accident in which injuries occur. Even if the employee isn’t driving a company vehicle, could you (the employer) be held liable? Yes, absolutely. Or what about the manager who gets a little tipsy at the party and begins to flirt, touch or proposition an employee? Could you (again, the employer) be liable for sexual harassment? You bet.


YOUR OPTIONS. So how can you limit holiday party liability and still have fun? For starters, you could consider eliminating alcohol altogether. (I’m waiting for the tomatoes to hit me.) Okay — for those of you who love wine (or beer, grasshoppers or whatever) as much as I do, I know this may sound unreasonable, but let’s face it, it’s commonly known that a mixture of festive activities and alcohol obscures the boundaries of acceptable behavior and good judgment. There’s really no question — if you eliminate the alcohol then you eliminate the root cause of most of the liabilities stemming from holiday parties. (If you don’t believe this, you’re kidding yourself.)

If, on the other hand, you elect to serve alcohol, but want to do so responsibly, here are a few suggestions to help limit your liability:

• Don’t make alcohol the focal point of the celebration. Instead, define the purpose for the celebration; plan the event to include stories about employees, highlights from the past year, a "pep" talk about the upcoming year and more.

• Select an appropriate venue. If you elect to have your party at the local pub or a nightspot with a questionable reputation, you could be asking for trouble.

• Limit the number of drinks each person may have or limit the time during which alcohol is served. Also, you could avoid hard liquor and serve only beer and wine.

• Designate your own "lookout" person to make sure that people who may have drank too much don’t leave the party on their own, don’t drive, don’t become overly "friendly" with someone at the party and don’t engage in behavior that is dangerous to themselves or others.

• Arrange to have transportation available for anyone whose alcohol level is questionable.

• Make sure that food is served and opt for food that is filling and that stays in the stomach longer to assist with alcohol absorption.

• Instruct those who are serving alcohol to refuse a drink to anyone who is visibly intoxicated.

To limit other types of liabilities, consider these suggestions:

• Inform employees in advance of the party that the company’s sexual harassment policy remains in full force at all work-sponsored events.

• Promote family-oriented celebrations scheduled during the afternoon or invite spouses and significant others to evening parties to limit the potential for "misbehavior."

• Strongly discourage the giving of inappropriate or suggestive gifts at holiday events.

• Make attendance at the party voluntary. If you require attendance, you may be liable for workers’ compensation should an employee get injured at the party.

• Thoroughly investigate all harassment claims brought by employees after parties and take prompt and immediate action against any employees who violate harassment policies at office events.

CONCLUSION. With a little bit of forethought, planning and wise decision-making, you can eliminate many of the risks and potentially devastating liabilities associated with holiday parties. If you’re the boss, I urge you to stop and think twice about this one. It is, after all, the time of year for joy, not grief. Cheers!

The author is president of Seawright & Associates Inc., a management consulting firm located in Winter Park, Fla. She can be contacted at 407/645-2433 or jseawright@pctonline.com.