Holiday Office Party Planning Issues

The office holiday party season is almost here, and with it comes a variety of potential morale, legal and public relations issues. The following is a quick overview of points to consider if you are planning an event.

1. Who is involved in planning, monitoring and clean-up? This is more sensitive than one might suppose. Leaving the work to female employees may send the wrong message. Excluding executives may suggest a division between leaders and followers. Think about this issue before starting.

2. Will the nature of your party encourage or discourage mixing between diverse groups? If people simply cluster together with their friends and ethnic groups, it may reinforce a sense of estrangement and division. On the other hand, it is difficult to force people to mix. Think about this issue before starting.

3. Do you want to plan something nontraditional? For example, do you invite employees to serve a meal to the homeless, raise money for charity through an event, or attend an athletic event? You will need to judge how these suggestions will be received. This may be a way to minimize divisions.

4. Do you want a "family-friendly" event or an adults-only event? This fundamental decision sets the tone for everything else that occurs. Either approach has potential pros and cons. The balance of considerations may favor a family friendly approach.

5. How will you describe your party? Names and descriptive terms set expectations for the attendees. Ideally a name produces excitement and a desire to attend. Will you use religious terms as part of the description?

6. What location will you select? If you select an off-work-site venue with a meeting facility, it will be more expensive, but you will have the benefit of professional independent contractor staff serving the guests.

7. When will the event occur? A brief event at the office on the afternoon before a holiday has one set of expectations. A different set of expectations govern evening events outside of working hours. Which type event will most likely raise morale? If young children are present, you need to consider childcare, entertainment, and bedtime issues.

8. Who will you invite? A tone that is appropriate for an internal employee event may not be appropriate for an event when clients and customers are present.

9. How will you deal with uninvited guests or the employee who brings a guest? Will you have clear guidelines in advance or be flexible?

10. Will you serve alcohol? While alcohol may be expected, its presence raises social host liability issues and a variety of potential negligence issues surrounding drunk driving and other injury producing events. With alcohol, it is essential to monitor consumption and provide safe transportation for guests. A cash bar dampens the party atmosphere but an open bar invites over-consumption.

11. What food or snacks will you serve? Do you provide or promote "healthy" eating? Will you consider potential food allergies or religious objections to certain foods?

12. Will you have door prizes? The types of door prizes and how they are distributed is a more sensitive issue than one might suppose. Are they not too cheap, not too expensive, and fun but not disappointing?

13. Will you set ground rules for employees in advance of the event? For example, costume parties may become public relations disasters as insensitive ebola, racist, or sexist appearances are promulgated on social media. Some employers believe it is necessary to remind employees of the workplace codes of conduct in advance of an event.

14. Will attendance be mandatory? Mandatory or "strongly suggested" attendance raises potential workers' compensation claims if an injury occurs. Additionally, some persons simply don't enjoy socializing with coworkers.

15. Will there be entertainment? Both internal skits and external comedians should be non-embarrassing and not vulgar to avoid damaging morale and providing fuel for future employment discrimination lawsuits. For example, having supervisors perform a skit about out-of-touch old geezers is asking for trouble.

16. Will there be music? Music is such a matter of personal taste. You have to judge the tastes of your potential attendees. Having religious music may be offensive to some and its absence may be offensive to others.

17. Reduce the opportunities for sexual harassment with careful planning. This might be accomplished with costume appearance guidelines, careful selection of games, and the absence of mistletoe.

18. Does the money spent on the party match workplace economic realities? Are you having a lavish party when there are no raises or a simple party when the company is prospering?

19. Will you have security personnel present at the event? This depends upon many factors but is a reality to consider.

20. What does the company's liability insurance cover? It is worthwhile to check.

Now do you understand why Ebenezer Scrooge never had an office party?