Holiday Office Parties -- Naughty or Nice?

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The holidays are upon us--'tis the season for cheer.

Holiday office parties are a great way to get your employees together, have a little fun, and celebrate the season. But they can also be detrimental to your small business HR efforts. All that hard work you put in throughout the year to come up with efficient HR solutions could be down the drain with just one drink too many.

What's an employer to do?

The Naughty List

Unfortunately, a good time can quickly turn sour an employer when things go wrong due to intoxication. The actions of your employees reflect on your company, even if you had no part in said actions. Liability can fall on you in numerous ways.

Here are some of the legal repercussions of your team playing naughty at your holiday party.

  1. Respondeat Superior. This theory says that an employer may have liability for its employees' harmful actions against a third party if those actions were committed within the course or scope of employment. So if Joe Schmoe leaves the holiday office party intoxicated and injures someone while driving, you could be held responsible.
  2. Workers' Compensation. Unlike the respondeat superior theory, worker's compensation laws protect employees who've been injured while at work or a work-related function. These laws sometimes exclude injuries that occur at recreational events, but the guidelines vary by state.
  3. Wrongful Death and Survivorship. Under these acts, a law suit can be filed by a representative of the deceased against an employer when alcohol-related incidents are involved.
  4. Harassment. Alcohol lowers inhibitions. Mix that with office parties, and you've got the recipe for harassment law suits. These parties are the perfect environment for unwanted sexual advances.

The Nice List

Office parties can be a positive experience for employer and employees alike. In fact, it can provide an opportunity to plug holes in your human resources policies by getting people to talk about the work environment. You can limit the exposures by limiting the adult beverages you serve or permit. One celebratory champagne toast can be enough.

Here are a few reasons to hold holiday parties for employees:

  1. Building Relationships. Casual parties can provide an opportunity for managers and staff to get to know each other on a different level. The atmosphere can allow for better communication and break down silos. The employees with career ambitions will appreciate the opportunity to "connect" with those in positions they aspire to attain.
  2. Expressing Gratitude. What better way to say "thank you" to the people who make your business a success all year than by hosting a holiday party?
  3. Recognizing Achievement. Distributing awards or just acknowledging the accomplishments of your hard-working staff goes a long way to building loyalty and commitment.
  4. Celebrating a Successful Year. You've had a busy, productive year. Giving your team the chance to celebrate that is a great way to build morale. Take time to give a "State of the Company" address and remind employees of their role in that success.

Santa's Elves to the Rescue

When it comes to alcohol and the holidays, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Just like Santa's little helpers, we've built something for your enjoyment.

Instead of a toy, it's a list of ways you can have alcohol at your party without putting your company at risk. With these five tips, you can have the best of both worlds: a little bit of naughty and a little bit of nice.

  1. Write and enforce a clear policy regarding alcohol. It should include the obvious rules about drinking on the job, as well as the behavior that's expected of employees during recreational functions. It's a good idea to include a detailed explanation of consequences that will result from poor choices due to intoxication.
  2. Put in writing that all recreational activities are purely voluntary and that attendance is not required. Making it known that these are social gatherings will help protect you in the event that something happens.
  3. Limit alcohol consumption at parties. You can do this by setting a numerical drink limit or by only allowing alcohol to be served during a short period of time. Side note: Be sure to prohibit supervisors from buying or providing drinks for their employees.
  4. Assign a monitor to make ensure everyone has a safe ride home or provide a company-paid taxi service for employees. This small step can make a huge difference.

With these policies in place, you'll enjoy everything this season has to offer--without worrying about destroying your well-planned activities.

Margaret Jacoby, SPHR, is the founder and president of MJ Management Solutions, a human resources consulting firm that provides small businesses with a wide range of virtual and onsite HR solutions to meet their immediate and long-term needs. From ensuring legal compliance to writing customized employee handbooks to conducting sexual harassment training, businesses depend on our expertise and cost-effective human resources services to help them thrive. This article first appeared on the MJ Management Solutions blog.

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