BY BRANDY CODY | GUEST BLOGGER
With the holidays in full swing, many companies are electing to celebrate with their employees by throwing holiday parties. There is always some degree of risk associated with any company-sponsored function. Serving alcohol at events increases that risk. Alcohol decreases our inhibitions, but also increases the likelihood of excessive drinking, flirtatious behavior, inappropriate remarks and even physical altercations. An employer can reduce potential liability by adhering to some simple recommendations.
• Take alcohol out of the equation, or at least limit it. You can control the environment by offering a catered lunch at your office, sans alcohol. If dinner out is more desirable, consider limiting alcohol choices to a few select beers and wines. Be sure to include several non-alcoholic options. If you are inclined to offer alcohol, opt for a “cash bar” or consider using a “drink ticket” system to limit the number of drinks offered to each guest. Hire a professional bartender, who will not only check ID, but will be able to objectively assess whether anyone has reached their limit for the evening. Close the bar at a pre-determined time (at least an hour in advance of the party’s conclusion) and switch the offerings to coffee, tea and soft drinks. Finally, host the party on a work night, when most people are less likely to overindulge.
• Make it a family affair. When employees are able to bring their partners and/or children, they tend to exhibit better behavior and judgment. It also adds another resource to ensure people get home safely.
• Use your eyes and ears. Advise supervisors and managers that they are considered “on-duty” at the party. Remind them that they are to lead by example. Ask them to keep an eye on their subordinate employees to ensure they are not drinking excessively. Designate a “go-to” person to be a resource and problem solver in the event an issue comes up at the party.
• The rules are still the rules. Remind all employees that, while you want them to enjoy themselves at the party, they are still obligated to adhere to the company’s code of conduct standards and otherwise comply with the policies against harassment, retaliation and other workplace rules regarding behavior. If necessary, advise them that misconduct at the holiday party can still result in disciplinary action. Consider re-circulating the policies against harassment and codes of conduct in advance of the party.
• Arrange for transportation. Arrange for designated drivers, taxis or a shuttle service to ensure your employees are delivered safely to their homes, at no cost to them. If you have an obviously intoxicated employee, consider securing him/her a hotel room for the evening.
• Distract them. Make sure you offer plenty of food options, entertainment and other activities that do not involve alcohol, to prevent drinking from becoming the primary focus of the party.
• No mistletoe. For obvious reasons, encouraging kissing at a work event is just a bad idea.
While it is difficult to completely eliminate all risk arising from an office party, you can greatly reduce that risk with good planning that helps ensure your employees have a safe and fun holiday.
Brandy Cody is a partner in the Portland office of Fisher & Phillips. She represents employers in all aspects of employment law and litigation, including wrongful termination, harassment, discrimination, contract disputes and all types of wage and hour claims.