The holiday season is once again upon us and businesses across the land are gearing up for their annual office holiday parties.  These gatherings provide an opportunity for co-workers to relax and celebrate, and for management to express gratitude to employees for a job well done.  They can also give rise to complaints, liability, and the kind of lasting memories that everyone would rather forget.

A supervisor donning a Santa suit and encouraging employees to sit on his lap and make a wish…not advisable. A manager heaping incoherent praise on employees and offering them promotions and raises after she’s taken one-too-many trips to the punch bowl…not a good idea. Snapping photos of a co-worker in a compromising position and posting them on social media…better to stick to the fruitcake. When organizing office events over the holidays, employers should take steps to avoid the potential pitfalls that can arise at these festivities.

Employers should emphasize that such gatherings are optional and not business-related and engaging in business activities during these times should be strongly discouraged. Otherwise, employers may be exposing themselves to claims for unpaid wages and may create liability for work-related occurrences such as worker’s compensation claims. Extending invitations to spouses and significant others will undoubtedly increase the cost of gatherings but will also further emphasize that it is a social event and not a business endeavor; moreover, their presence can go a long way toward minimizing inappropriate behavior.

Employees should be reminded of the company’s policies on matters such as sexual harassment, substance abuse, and workplace diversity. Providing a dress code for the event may help to avoid inappropriate attire and unnecessary offense or embarrassment. Outlining expectations in advance and on the day of the event is advisable.

Venue and presentation are also vitally important.  Office holiday parties should be held at a restaurant, banquet hall, or other off-site venue. Not only will this make the event feel more social and less business-oriented, but it may also transfer some liability to the venue and away from the employer. Employers should strive to maintain a non-denominational atmosphere, as the perception that the employer favors one religion or ritual over others could give rise to complaints about discrimination.

If alcohol is served, appropriate steps should be taken to assure responsible drinking and safety. Providing guests with a set number of drink tickets and cash-only bars are ways to control consumption. Hiring professional bartenders who are trained to monitor excessive drinking and refuse service to intoxicated guests is also a good idea. It is also prudent to designate some managers or administrators to keep an eye out for potential problems and to address them immediately, as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) requires prompt and proportionate corrective action for any offenses that take place at work-sponsored events.

Providing food before the bar opens is a good way to maintain some level of sobriety among the guests. Food should be available throughout the event and the bar should close an hour before food service ends.  Employers should consider offering car service or transportation vouchers for guests to avoid sending impaired drivers out onto the streets, and employers should familiarize themselves with state laws regarding employer liability for work-related alcohol incidents. Finally, consider staging parties during the work week, either in the afternoon (which also gives employees part of the day off), or in the evening. Employees are less likely to overindulge in the middle of the day or on a work night.

The holidays are a time for rest, relaxation, and celebration. The office party can be a wonderful opportunity for everyone to enjoy the spirit of the season. Taking the time to properly plan the event will afford everyone a positive and memorable experience; failing to do so could turn the office party into a holiday nightmare.