No one questions the value of having a holiday party for employees.  Parties break down barriers between managers and staff and provide the company with an opportunity to express its appreciation for a year of hard work and dedication.  Unfortunately, holiday parties also provide opportunities for some individuals to engage in unacceptable behavior such as:

  • Having a few too many drinks;
  • Telling the boss what they think of his management style;
  • Telling the subordinate what the boss thinks about the way she looks, or the sexy way she dresses;
  • Taking the opportunity to dance too close, to hug, to kiss or to fondle that very special employee; or
  • Providing the CEO with the opportunity to include his latest and greatest off-color joke in his after-dinner toast to the employees.

While such behavior may not, in and of itself, be sufficient to sustain a claim for sexual harassment, it is certain that if there is a sexual harassment claim in the company’s future, each and every one of the embarrassing things said or done at the holiday party will be resurrected.  Short of appointing Ebenezer Scrooge to host the annual holiday party, there are a number of ways a company can discourage inappropriate behavior at the company party.

When, Where and Whom?

One of the first questions to address is who should be invited to the party.  Some companies have a series of parties; for example, separating the professional staff from the support staff.  Holding separate parties eliminates the common problems associated with mixing supervisors and subordinates with alcohol.  Other companies invite spouses to the party, at least in part because employees are less likely to act inappropriate in front of their spouse.

When and where the party is held are equally important questions to address.  A party held on a Saturday night in a banquet room across the hall from the bar at the local hotel is exponentially more risky than a party held on a Wednesday afternoon at a nice restaurant.

Well-Known Standards of Conduct

As the holiday season approaches and invitations and reminders are distributed by management regarding the annual party, a friendly reminder that a sexual harassment policy is in existence and that employees are expected to conduct themselves accordingly is both timely and appropriate.  If specific problems occurred in the recent past, the company’s communications should be more direct.  Inform the employees regarding the proper dress code and code of conduct.

Alcohol, Alcohol, Alcohol

It is a rare occasion where inappropriate conduct at the holiday party cannot be traced directly to the consumption of too much alcohol.  Recognizing that alcoholic beverages will be served at most holiday parties, there are a number of steps companies can take to reduce the unwanted side effects of alcohol:

  • Have a cash bar – nothing encourages drinking more than a free, open bar;
  • Even better, issue a limited number of drink tickets – this will directly regulate the amount of alcohol consumed; or
  • Keep the bar open during the initial cocktail party, but close it once dinner is served.

In addition, it is important to recognize that in some circumstances, where wine or drinks are served at dinner, the wait staff may be instructed by the restaurant or banquet manager to keep wine and drink glasses full.  It is common in such circumstances for some employees unwittingly to drink more alcohol than they intended.  Ask the restaurant to limit the number of bottles of wine served to each table.

Finally, appoint a host with sufficient authority and respect to monitor the progress of the party.  Just as a host is charged with making sure everyone is having a good time, the host should make certain that no one is drinking to excess and that no one leaves the party unless they are sober, or are accompanied by a designated driver.  If necessary, arrange for taxi cabs.

The Unsanctioned Party

It is an old problem.  Employees attending the company’s official, somewhat restrained, holiday party make arrangements to meet somewhere else after the party to celebrate.  In order to reduce the likelihood that this second party is later considered to be a sanctioned event, the company should:

  • Make it clear that the second party is not a company event and employee attendance is not expected;
  • Discourage supervisors and managers from attending.  Instruct them if they do attend, under no circumstances should they “pick up the tab” on their expense account or otherwise make it appear that this is a company event.  Despite the fact that the “afterglow” is not a company event, inform supervisors who choose to attend that they are expected to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the company’s code of conduct.

Although following all the guidelines and suggestions set forth above may make it seem like Ebenezer Scrooge was appointed social director for the company, a reasonable combination of the suggestions above, coupled with good common sense, should allow the company to reward its employees for a year of hard work and dedication without having to worry about the “hangover” caused by next year’s unintended lawsuit.