Ho Ho Ho, Oh No No No! It is Holiday Party Time
Updated: May 10, 2018
“I must stop this whole thing! Why, for fifty-three years I've put up with it now. I must stop Christmas from coming. But how?” No one intentionally want to be like the character in the classic story, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but a well meaning holiday party gone wrong could strongly harm your holiday.
Bottom line holiday parties are a great idea. When successful these celebrations are great moral boosters, team builders and opportunities to celebrate the successes achieved during the year. In particular, inviting the families of the employees to the celebration is a strong tool in gaining employee loyalty and engagement, leading to retention and better performance.
No doubt these events are fun, but do involve a lot of work and planning to pull off. Additionally in this litigious society, employers need to carefully consider managing the liabilities of holding a company holiday party.
As companies around America drag out the lights, consult with caterers and order booze for their annual holiday parties, know that once the celebrations are over, more than one in three employers will report that the festivities got out of hand. It could be that a worker used the mistletoe as an excuse to get frisky with a colleague, or a few tipsy employees exchanged heated words—or even came to blows. Thirty-six percent of U.S. employers report worker misconduct at holiday parties, wrote Albert Brannen, an attorney at Fisher & Phillips LLP, in the firm’s November 2013 Labor Letter. The misconduct runs the gamut: excessive drinking, sexual advances, off-color jokes, vulgar language, arguments and fistfights.
I offer a few suggestions on proceeding with this tradition.
Do not require attendance and refrain from “strongly encouraging” attendance. To do so may cross the lines between a voluntary and thus non-compensable event and work. Additionally, clearly stating that the event is voluntary may be part of any potential defense involving workers compensation, wage and hour, and many other regulatory issues. On the non-legal side, some employees prefer to maintain a firewall of separation between their work and personal life. This preference needs to be respected so any form of pre, or post event coercion could backfire.
Consider the issue of alcoholic beverages. Begin with your company culture. If your culture is adverse to serving alcoholic beverages this is not a question. However, if it is a tradition or consistent with your company culture be very cautious. Limit any company paid beverages, and do not serve a punch that may mask alcohol. The best advice is to have a licensed, third party to cater the event and have them responsible for the serving of adult drinks. Many states, Utah included, have strong dram shop laws that clearly place the liability of a DUI accident on the provider if they serve alcohol to an intoxicated person, or to the point of intoxication or to an underage person. Do not over supervise this independent contractor, but clearly give guidelines that limit consumption to be compliant with this law. Limiting or eliminating alcohol also reduces the chance of embarrassing dangerous or illegal behavior. Please confirm with an attorney for the legal considerations here.
A sub-point related to alcohol is managing expectations around general employee behavior. While you cannot treat the event as work, you need to communicate expected standards of behavior and clearly assert that violations of the standards may have appropriate consequences from a disciplinary standpoint. Do not hang mistletoe! As an example, I was involved in the firing of a senior executive/ownership family member who used a company social event to forcefully express his ardor for a female employee. His argument, it was not work and he was wrong. You should have company polices of zero tolerance for this type of behavior and general off duty policies that prohibit behavior that embarrasses or tarnishes the reputation of the employer in the community. Also, prohibit uninvited and unapproved attendees. Consider hiring an off-duty police officer or a security company representative to handle any problems
Hold the event offsite. There is temptation to show off the business when vendors or customers are also invited. It may also be less expensive to hold the event in your parking lot. The rationale for offsite is more compelling. The liability for the event may be controlled in the event of an accident or injury. Again consult an attorney on this issue. The offsite will be perceived by the employees as a perk. Remember, they show up at your place of business daily and a park, theater or recreation facility away from work is part of the fun. The offsite location may provide more activities, especially if families are invited.
Hire a professional to plan and run the event. You deserve to have fun too. Why burden yourself with all the headaches, logistics and details of food, beverage and entertainment?
Be considerate. Holiday parties and decorations are a diversity issue. When an employer is trying to do something nice for its employees such as providing a party or decorating the office, it makes sense that the employer work conscientiously to avoid offending employees or alienating employees who feel their religion or culture has been ignored.
You should be able to celebrate, refuel your enthusiasm for the company and enhance your relationships with your team. After all, is that why you are having the holiday party in the first place? Enjoy this holiday season.
Russell Lookadoo is the HR Guy for small businesses. His firm, HRchitecture, specializes in helping business leaders accomplish their goals by effectively using their teams. Russell brings three decades of experience designing Human Resources solutions that achieve business strategies in varied organizations ranging from a small manufacturer to the nation’s second largest bank. Russell holds the Senior Professional in Human Resources designation from the Society of Human Resources Management and earned the Certified Compensation Professional designation from World at Work. Russell attended the University of North Carolina on the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Industrial Relations. Visit his website at www.theHRGuy.biz