So you’ve been tasked with organizing your holiday work party. No problem: Just throw some pretzels in a bowl, bust open a few boxes of wine, crank up your iTunes, and you’re all set, right?
Not so fast. The office party shouldn’t have anything in common with a frat party kegger. It should be an occasion to celebrate, but it can’t invite too much celebrating.
“A wild office party akin to a Mad Men-esque soirée may have unfortunate legal consequences for an employer,” says a recent article from Larry Besnoff of the online labor law resource HRLegalist.com. Some potential dangers? “Claims of harassment, discrimination, negligence, and other torts.”
But the party doesn’t have to consist of co-workers standing around stiffly sipping paper cups full of fruit punch and making awkward conversation.
“Office holiday parties are great because they allow employees to feel a sense of camaraderie,” Joseph Hernandez, an HR expert who teaches business classes at Portland Community College told The FruitGuys Magazine. “When planning an office holiday party, make sure you’re organized and plan ahead for contingencies.”
On? Or Off?
Off-site parties are a good way to keep things fun and even involve physical activity. If your company can afford it, try opting for an outing—a sporting event, a group visit to the ice rink, or a bowling night. If you’re planning an onsite bash, Hernandez and others cite theme parties as another popular choice. Try a casino night, carnival, or costume theme.
One potential pitfall, however: If your company is experiencing a period of budget tightening that results in layoffs or reduced bonuses, make sure the party is modest. You want to make sure that people don’t think you spent a bundle on a party that could have gone into keeping someone’s job or bonus check. “If the organization did not have a particularly good year, but still wants a party, frame it as an employee appreciation event,” Hernandez suggests. It’s best to have a more casual gathering that will bring individuals together without breaking the bank. A potluck where everyone can share their favorite dishes can be festive, inexpensive, and a team-builder to boot.
Keeping The Peace
No matter the venue, stories of inappropriate behavior at office parties are the stuff of legend. Make sure your party gets held up as an example of a success--not a cautionary tale--by taking a few common-sense steps in advance:
- Remind staff beforehand about company policies concerning conduct and behavior standards. No need to be heavy-handed —a simple reminder on a bulletin board, email, or other type of memo will suffice, as long as you are clear.
- If you choose an off-site location, choose a place that is appropriate and comfortable for all employees (“i.e., probably not the sports bar with the skimpy server outfits,” says attorney Matt Durham in the Oregon Business Report article, “How to Lawsuit-Proof Your Holiday Office Party”). Make sure your party is accessible to employees with disabilities, he adds.
- Designate a start- and end-time that you stick to. If things linger indefinitely, alcohol (if you are serving it) continues to flow, and post-party activities can be harder to control.
- And finally, weigh the pros and cons of serving alcohol at your office party.
Hernandez suggests putting the kibosh on what was once a holiday party staple. “There could be many factors that go into liability in regard to serving alcohol at official work functions,” he says. “… ultimately the best practice would be to exclude alcohol from the event.”
In their articles, Besnoff and Dunham don’t go quite so far, but they do recommend some guidelines to keep lampshades off heads and lawsuits at a minimum:
- Have a third party—not employees or supervisor—serve the drinks.
- Limit consumption through tickets or a cash bar—definitely do not make it an open bar, or, even worse, “serve yourself.”
- Be proactive about making driving or transportation arrangements for those who have had too much to drink.
- Invite spouses and partners. They can help keep employees from imbibing too much.
Planning a holiday party for your workplace can be a lot of work, but you'll be rewarded with a gathering that captures the spirit of the season for your employees to enjoy.
Jonanna Widner provided research assistance for this article.
Miriam Wolf is a Portland-based health coach and the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.