Some Advice with Your Company’s Holiday Party

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Holiday parties seem to generate a surge in sexual harassment complaints, with employees losing their usual professional demeanor  and falling pray to lack of inhibitions from drinking alcohol in the festive moment.

As a business owner, you must have some concern about employee behavior at your planned workplace holiday parties, as these can often bring about questionable and awkward behavior. Co-workers, holiday cheer and alcohol are not always a good combination, are they? As the old saying goes:

“I love company holiday parties, I just hate the process of looking for a new job the next day!”

Plan to Avoid the Situation

To prevent a legal situation, business owners should have plan for potential upfront problems with regard to their holiday and end-of-the-year parties. It is well established legally that the office holiday party is part of the “work environment” when analyzing a “hostile work environment” claim. Therefore, unwelcome sexual-oriented conduct by any employee at an office party, that is sufficiently severe or pervasive, can constitute sexual harassment.

You can avoid sexual harassment occurrances at your accompany parties this year. Consider the following ideas for your company’s holiday party:

  • Require managers to circulate a memo the day of the party: remind all employees why you are having a party:  it is an occasion for colleagues to celebrate the company’s performance in a joyful, but professional manner.  Reinforce the message that the company will not tolerate misconduct of any kind.
  • Provide the proper training on the company’s sexual harassment policy, and not merely once each year following an incident.
  • Train supervisors on the proper process for violations of your harassment policy.
  • Consider inviting spouses, or significant others to the event- this will help curb inappropriate behavior.
  • Dump the  mistletoe- while a nice custom in a home setting, it is likely to promote unwelcome behavior in a business setting.
  • Establish a rule prohibiting the exchange of sexually oriented  gifts. Even if thought to be funny these gifts often lead to hurt feelings or social discomfort.
  • Expedite an investigation into any and every complaint of sexual harassment that is made.

What Can You Do?

It should come as no surprise that alcohol is a contributing factor in the majority of holiday party sexual harassment claims. Alcohol not only affects  the judgment of harassers it impacts  the judgement of  victims also. While eliminating alcohol altogether might not realistic, there are many things employers can do to mitigate the risks and to minimize overindulgence:

  • Consider having a holiday lunch instead of an evening dining event.
  • Participate in a local volunteer event.
  • If you chose an evening event, set a defined end time and stick to it. Also, it is wise close the bar an hour (or sooner ) before that time.
  • Exclude hard liquor from the menu (many companies serve beer and/or wine only).
  • Designate several senior executives  as “designated driver”s- they are tasked with overseeing the event event and therefore must remain sober.
  • retain the services of a professional bartender or have the event at a location offering bartending services.  Allowing employees to serve themselves might encourage them to refill their drinks too frequently or overindulge. and set a maximum number of drinks that an individual can have, through the use of drink tickets or vouchers (two is becoming a common standard).
  • Why not have a cash bar, with a local non-profit organization the recipient of the monies raised?
  • There are many non-alcoholic beverages available- have them available. And where alcohol is served,m always have plenty of food on hand.
  • Have the telephone number of a reputable local taxi service on hand.

You Don’t Have to Stop the Party

Holiday parties can be great opportunity for developing your company culture, but they are also a potential liability. Follow the suggestions above, as they can help make your company party issue free.

Thanks to Jamie Mahler, an attorney with the Lowenbaum Partnership, L.L.C. whose inspired this article.