December 2011 Top Ways to Avoid Legal Hangovers This Holiday Season
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Top Ways to Avoid Legal Hangovers This Holiday Season

By Steve Strauss. ARCHIVE:

Between parties, shopping, time off, and goofing off, it’s a wonder any work gets done this month at all. And while that respite from the regular grind is a welcome change for employees, employers need to be vigilant, especially with regard to that time-honored event - the office holiday party. Consider these statistics:

  • 79% of employers plan to hold office parties,
  • 60% plan to serve alcohol, and
  • Nearly 40% of employees have either embarrassed themselves at a holiday party or know someone who has

Yet even so, about one quarter of all employers have no policy on alcohol consumption at work-related events. And that can be dangerous. I recently spoke about this issue with Rosemary Gousman, the managing partner at the New Jersey offices of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the country’s top firms when it comes to employment law.

According to Ms. Gousman, the smart business will take the following steps to make sure their holiday party is safe for all involved, including the employer:

1. Create an Event Planning Team. It is important to have at least one supervisor who is sensitive to potential issues as an active member of the team. Equally importantly she says, “train team on company policies, including complaint system, harassment, etc.”

2. Carefully Choose the Venue and Entertainment: Ms. Gousman says that while it is less expensive to host party in office, it can increase the legal risk. Also, as you choose a place, avoid venues that might tarnish the company’s reputation or are not comfortable for and welcoming to all employees.

3. Consider Timing: “The later in the day or evening the event, the more prevalent the serving of alcohol, and the more likely inappropriate and unsafe behavior will occur.”

4. Be Sure to Invite Spouses and Significant Others as it encourages appropriate behavior if they attend. “Inter-office flirtations are less likely.”

5. Consider Steps to Avoid Alcohol-Related Mishaps: For instance, you might want to

  • Have drink tickets
  • Avoid an open bar or serving hard liquor
  • Have designated drivers
  • Get a licensed bartender, and
  • Offer food and soft drinks

6. Consider the Religious Aspects of the Events: It is wise to not only consider the timing of religious holidays when planning the event, but also, avoid religious aspects in your party.

7. Communicate About Behavior Expectations for Event: Let people know what is considered acceptable use of alcohol and make sure everyone understand that driving under the influence of alcohol is not tolerated. Similarly, you should explain that your office has zero tolerance of discrimination or harassment.

8. Consider Avoiding Gift Giving: “Gifts have the potential of being perceived as romantic,” she says, and gag gifts may be offensive to some.

While this may sound like a lot of “don’ts”, the important idea is that you can offer your staff a fun holiday party and protect your business from potential liability with just a little extra planning and communication.