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Holiday Cheer or Fear?

By Victoria Aguilar

It?s that time of year when the holiday season provides a reason to bring workforces together ? unofficially or officially ? to contemplate the year?s events or simply to have fun. This time-honored, year-end tradition can take many forms, but at most organizations it still exists in some sense. But for many employers, it comes with some unknowns.

This is the time of year when we receive lots of calls from clients asking all sorts of questions, such as:

  • ?Should we even bother with a holiday party??
  • ?We want to serve alcohol; how do we deal with the potential of employees becoming intoxicated??
  • ?Do we have to pay employees for attending an after hours event??

As far as one?s imagination can wander, so too are the mix of questions. Though we can?t possibly address the full range of issues or risks that can arise as a result of a company-sponsored holiday event, we have outlined a few of the more common concerns below. Armed with this knowledge and understanding, we hope and wish that your company is better positioned to host an event that enables everyone to have a reasonable degree of fun.

While as a firm, we try not to instill fear into our clients or potential clients, we fundamentally believe that clients who are reasonably well informed and proactively manage the potential risk in any given situation are generally well served. The reality is that there is always a risk involved in holding any company-sponsored function. And whenever alcohol is served, the potential for risk is only compounded. As a result, more and more employers are choosing to hold alcohol-free parties and events. To the extent however that a non-alcoholic event is neither desired nor practicable, risk can be mitigated by observing as many of the following recommendations as possible:

The Dos and Don?ts of a Company Holiday Party:

  • Don?t have an ?open bar? where employees can drink as much as they want. Instead, have a cash bar or implement a ticket system to limit the number of drinks. Close the bar at least an hour before the party is planned to end. If at all possible provide bottled water, sodas, non-alcoholic beverages, etc. free of charge, or make them readily available.
  • Do invite spouses and significant others as their participation will often facilitate better behavior and/or allow for one party to drive the other home safely.
  • Don?t hang mistletoe. No joke. It should go without saying (but we will say it anyhow) that no good can come of this. However quaint the tradition may be, don?t include mistletoe in the party decorations.
  • Do serve food, particularly if alcohol is served.
  • Don?t allow supervisors or managers or any employees to play ?bartender.? Hire professional bartenders, even if the event is hosted at a private residence. Require the bartenders to be on the alert for suspect behavior and advise leadership when a concern arises. Require bartenders to be reasonably alert to underage drinking.
  • Do arrange for a no-cost taxi service and make sure that all party attendees are aware of the service and its availability to them. This should be publicized in advance and also at the party.
  • Don?t require attendance if the party is outside of working hours and don?t compel employees to take on particular tasks while at the event.
  • Do enable all employees, but particularly managers, to keep an eye out for others; enable managers to secure a hotel room for intoxicated employees.
  • Do set the tone by reminding everyone that while they are encouraged to have a good time, the company?s normal workplace standards of conduct remain in force and misconduct at or after the party could result in disciplinary action.

SMART TIPS: All relationships with third-party vendors (e.g., restaurant or party site, bartenders, taxi cab service provider, entertainment) should be documented with particular attention given to responsibilities and agreements as well as liability and insurance coverage.

Communication with employees making them aware of the party/event, the free taxi cab service, and the application of the company standards of conduct, etc., should be in writing.

Remember that leaders set the tone. Most employees will act in accordance with the standards set by their leaders. Demonstrate that it is possible to have fun without having too much to drink.