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Spiked Egg Nog and the Human Response: Avoiding Holiday Party Mishaps

Written by Robert Sheridan

Like festive lights and bow-wrapped luxury cars, ‘tis the season for horror stories from company holiday parties. Office holiday parties are a cherished tradition and a nice way for companies to thank their employees for a job well done. However, employers need to safeguard against parties running amok and companies ending up on the wrong end of the gossip pages. We suggest some best practices to avoid liability and embarrassment.

  • Announcements about holiday parties should serve as gentle reminders that non-discrimination and non-harassment policies extend to work-sponsored social events like holiday parties. The message should be to have fun, but to behave. Management and supervisory personnel attending holiday parties should reinforce that message by setting a positive example.
  • In vino veritas: in the holiday party context, the translation should read, “in wine there is litigation.” Every holiday season brings employment lawsuits stemming from holiday parties, and the typical fact pattern involves alcohol and inappropriate behavior.
    • The bah humbug (and safest) approach would be to avoid providing alcohol during company holiday parties. However, given that this approach is unrealistic, companies should consider practical measures to curb over-consumption like providing drink tickets and a cash bar. Needless to say, companies should also provide food and plenty of non-alcoholic beverages.
    • Also, to make sure employees get home safely, companies should offer transportation options like taxi vouchers and should advertise these options prominently at the event and in all event reminders.
  • Attendance at holiday parties should be voluntary, which has practical and legal implications. Practically speaking, some employees may not be able to attend because of commuting issues and familial obligations or it may just not be their cup of tea. Legally speaking, making attendance voluntary inoculates companies against wage claims, e.g., by non-exempt employees for failure to pay for time spent at holiday parties.
  • Lastly, office holiday parties should be strictly secular events. The modern workplace is a diverse environment, and holiday party decorations should avoid religious symbolism.

In the social media age holiday party horror stories and pictures can go viral in seconds, ruining reputations and carefully established brands.   With some prudence and holiday party forethought, companies can reward their employees, avert litigation and avoid becoming next year’s (or next week’s) holiday party punch line.

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