Office Party Horror Stories: Avoiding Similar Issues This Holiday Season / Careers / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Your employees are ready to party! Here how to ring in the holidays in a fun yet professional way that everyone in the office can enjoy.

Holiday season is upon us, which means that holiday office party season is here, too.

But beware: what starts out as a simple get-together for your employees could end up with you making a call to your lawyer.

So, how do you stay out of trouble?

Catherine Morisset, a partner in the Labor & Employment practice at Fisher & Phillips, offered up some advice about common office party mistakes and ways to avoid them.

It May Be a Party, But It’s Still Work

Your event might be in the large conference room down the hall or it might be in the large ballroom downtown, but, either way, it is still considered work. “Employer organized or sponsored get-togethers are still activities that take place ‘at the workplace’,” Morisset says. “This is an especially important concept because it means that employers can be held liable for the entire host of workplace claims—from sexual harassment to assault to workplace injuries.”

Another consideration, especially for employers that like to make parties mandatory: If an employee is required to be there, then some employees might be entitled to overtime pay for their time on the dance floor. Morisset explains: “If office party events are mandatory, non-overtime exempt workers are entitled to their regular pay, and this time counts as hours worked for overtime calculation purposes.”

Related Article: Beware of Egg Nog: 15 Office Holiday Party Do’s and Don’ts

Set the Ground Rules and Make Sure the Supervisors Are on Board

The old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” certainly applies here. Before the day of the event, human resources should send employees a friendly reminder about workplace policies. Although you want your employees to enjoy themselves at the party, it’s worth including a comment in the invitation about celebrating, as Morisset says, “in a joyful, professional manner.”

In addition to a general staff reminder about professional decorum, supervisors should understand what is expected of them during the festivities. According to Morisset, “More important [than the invite notice] may be for HR or a respected upper-level manager to remind supervisors that they set the tone for the event and they also have a responsibility to watch out and correct inappropriate behavior.” A subtle and professional comment or correction in the moment by a supervisor might just nip a potential legal complaint in the bud.

If there are complaints before, during, or after the party, take them seriously. Diligently investigate and deal with any improper conduct related to the holiday party just as you would with any other workplace compliant. Make sure the supervisors aren’t quick to dismiss a holiday party issue with a shrug or a “loosen up, it’s a party.”

This is also a good time to review your insurance policy to see what is and what isn’t covered, and make sure you stay within your safety guidelines.

To Serve or Not to Serve

The availability of alcohol at the party is always the tipsy elephant in the room. Of course, the simplest solution is to not serve alcohol at all, but you may end up with fewer attendees or less enthusiastic party goers.

On the other hand, alcohol creates the potential for a whole set of problems that don’t exist at a dry party. ABC News cited a study conducted by a professional women’s group that found that “drinking too much was the number one regret of women at their office parties.”

The ubiquity of technology and social media exacerbates all of the risks of workplace claims—from harassment to injuries. “Modern technology also unfortunately opens the door for more types of inappropriate behavior—and a clear, easily shared record of them. Think Facebook photos or text messages rather than inappropriate photos on the copy machine,” cautions Morisset.

Things to keep in mind if you do decide to serve alcohol:

  • Consider making the bar a cash bar or giving employees drink tickets to limit the amount they are served.
  • Always make sure there is food available to cut down on people drinking on an empty stomach.
  • Have beer and wine rather than mixed drinks.  
  • Include taxi or ride-share costs in the party budget to make sure employees who overindulge get home safely.

Related Article: HR Horror Stories: What’s the Absolute Worst Thing You Could Do on the Job?

Set Everyone Up for Fun, Not Humiliation

As a good employer, it’s your job to create an environment where no one is embarrassed (inappropriate gag gifts or forced participation in awkward games) and, one hopes, where no one is encouraged to embarrass themselves.

“The wise employer will balance how to best boost employee morale while not inadvertently harming the same by creating a too festive environment that opens the door to employee harm,” says Morriset.

Her final piece of advice? “Don’t hang any mistletoe.”

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