Holiday Parties Can Be Fun or Hazardous

September 12, 2018|

I know, it’s just barely Labor Day and still hot as Hades in Augusta. But let me be the first Grinch to get you thinking about the holiday season. It will be here before you know it — you know it will.

I frequently speak to employer groups on the hazards of holiday parties. Unfortunately, by the time I think to include it in my column, the planning people are already way down the road. So, this year I am getting a jump on the crowd.

Why do employers sponsor holiday parties? To show our appreciation for our employees’ work and, hopefully, to celebrate a successful year in business. However, in my experience, holiday parties are fraught with as much opportunity to damage morale as to improve it. So, here are some thoughts from a war-scarred veteran of many year-end parties.

First, let your employees help plan the party. It is not really a party unless the people you plan to honor and entertain actually want to come.

I once worked for a company that hosted its holiday party at a fancy restaurant that required men to wear a jacket. Many of us in management frequented this restaurant and considered it a big perk to invite the rank-and-file employees to a party there. However, almost none of the staff (primarily female) attended. After a couple of years of this trend, someone had the bright idea to ask the staff why the party was not well attended. Turns out, most of the staff’s husbands hated wearing a sports coat or jacket, so they did not attend.

The moral of the story is, let your people help plan the party.

I cannot discuss holiday parties without discussing the issue of alcohol. To paraphrase: “What happens at the holiday party does not stay at the holiday party.”

Behavior at any office party comes back to work. The party is not a free pass for adolescent behavior, and there is no law against discharge or discipline for actions taken at the party. Don’t punch out the boss. “Innocent flirting” with a subordinate at the party can become sexual harassment in the cold light of day.

For the employer, the presence of alcohol means the possibility of “social host liability.” In Georgia, social hosts can be held liable for the damage caused by someone to whom they serve alcohol if the person was noticeably intoxicated at the time and the host knows the person will soon be driving a motor vehicle.

In South Carolina, social host liability is limited to hosts who serve alcohol to minors (including providing open access, such as a keg).

My rule of thumb when advising clients is: all things in moderation. Here are some tips to help keep the party in check and still have a good time:

1. Invite spouses if the party is after business hours.
2. Do not serve unlimited free alcohol. If the party is a dinner, have an open bar for 45 minutes or an hour before dinner, and then go to a cash bar. Hand out two free drink tickets to each person.
3. Serve food to help slow alcohol absorption.
4. Do not serve unattended alcohol, particularly if there are minors at the party.
5. Hire a professional bartender.

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