Holiday Parties and Alcohol

November 3, 2013

Holiday PartyThe holidays are approaching faster than the department stores can replace the summer final clearance items off the display racks with the holiday-themed merchandise that will engulf retailers’ locations for the immediate months to come. The rapidly approaching holiday season impacts employers, large and small as they begin to set plans for activities and celebrations set around holiday festivities. Whereas these events intend to enhance workplace spirits and to recognize employees’ dedication and achievement throughout the earlier part of the year, employers must be mindful to ensure a safe and appropriate work-sponsored event. Company-hosted events that recognize workers’ efforts and provide employees an opportunity to mingle and develop camaraderie outside of the office setting can enhance workplace morale as well as develop or strengthen interpersonal relationships among employees.

The holiday season, full of colorful decorations, gift giving and social gatherings often lends itself to creating a workplace atmosphere that is much more relaxed than that of the earlier part of the year. Whereas the opportunity to socialize among colleagues has been proven in studies to enhance teamwork and collaboration among colleagues, there are additional items to consider toward the development of workplace guidelines for after-hour social events, work dinners or meetings.

It is very important to set a written workplace policy regarding behavior during after hour company events. Without a set workplace policy involving celebrations and social outings in place, employees will not have an opportunity to attain an understanding of the employer’s expectations of conduct in a social setting or during a work function. This may result in unfavorable consequences to the worker as well as the Company.

Here are a few items that employers and employees should consider when planning work-sponsored holiday events:

Management, in partnership with the Human Resources Team, should ensure that workplace policies involving employer-sponsored events have been clearly communicated to employees within the organization’s Employee Handbook.

It is recommended that alcoholic beverages are only served and consumed in moderation at social gatherings and company-sponsored events. Employees should be in receipt of the organization’s policy on alcohol usage during a work-sponsored event or activity. Additionally, the employer should incorporate a strict guideline regarding cessation of alcoholic beverage service to anyone who is visibly intoxicated or physically incapacitated as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. Additionally, it is crucial that alcohol is never served to employees under the legal drinking age.

It is further recommended to ensure that the company’s Employee Handbook contains a Workplace Party policy that encompasses the Company’s expectations of employee conduct during work-sponsored events.

Additional suggestions to help the employer reduce its risk in regard to serving alcoholic beverages during social events are:

Provide taxi cabs, at the employer’s expense, to and from the event and the next day to get their left vehicles. Prior to the party, communicate to all employees and encourage them to use taxis if they will be drinking at the party.
Limit the “open bar”. Not only will this provide a cost savings to the employer, this practice also discourages overindulgence and makes it easier to manage alcohol intake.

Managers should be appointed to casually observe and monitor the social event and take note of any excessive consumption. Any employee who appears to have consumed too much alcohol should not be permitted to operate a motor vehicle. A trusted colleague or family member should drive the employee home.

Unfortunately, Human Resources problems and employer liabilities can be unintended consequences of company parties. Attempting to minimize the risks is an essential part of party planning.

Revealing clothing and dancing, games and contests coupled with a festive atmosphere and alcoholic consumption may foster inappropriate conduct. Overconsumption of alcohol may further exacerbate the situation by impairing the employee’s judgment. Partaking in beverages at social events may leave an employer vulnerable to employees accusing other employees of sexual harassment or other types of unlawful harassment. Employers also have been held liable to third-parties for property damage and wrongful death due to inebriated employees driving home from company-sponsored events.

To reduce the risk of liability, employers should consider taking the following steps:
Prepare and disseminate a strong policy prohibiting sexual harassment at work and at employer-sponsored events, such as parties, picnics and conventions.
Prior to the event, remind employees that company standards of conduct and anti-harassment policies remain in effect when employees attend company-sponsored events.
Remind managers of their responsibility for enforcing company policies during the party even when it takes place after work and off premises.
Consider distributing drink tickets to limit alcohol consumption.
Hire a professional bartender who will pour drinks and cut off anyone who has had enough alcohol.
Provide plenty of food and non-alcoholic beverages.
Arrange for designated drivers and company-paid taxis or other alternate transportation, if available.

Through careful planning, an employer will be able to plan a well-orchestrated holiday party. Incorporating office policies to offsite work events as they apply to employees while in the course of work duties will help ensure that a clear and consistent workplace behavior policy or guideline has been established. An employer cannot be too proactive when it comes to planning holiday parties and confirming that the workplace policies in place are compliant with state and federal laws.