Holiday office parties are a great morale booster but can also get your company in hot water. Follow these tips for a fun event that doesn’t unnecessarily expose you to a risk of liability.
(1) Social Host Liability. The problem: If an employee leaving your function is involved in a DUI causing bodily injury or property damage, you could be held liable. The solution: Limit alcohol consumption. Suggestions include having the event earlier in the day, offering lots of alternative non-alcoholic beverages, provide food, don’t have an unlimited open bar. Be alert, and if an employee seems to be under the influence, have someone drive them home.
(2) Sexual Harassment. The problem: People speak more freely in an informal, party atmosphere, especially if alcohol is served. “Jokes” get out of hand, and can be misinterpreted. The solution: Remind all supervisors prior to the party that inappropriate comments and interactions with employees will not be tolerated. If you or another manager sees or overhears something inappropriate, step in immediately to diffuse the situation (ignoring it gives the appearance that you are condoning it). Suggestions include making the party a family event (if spouses, significant others, and kids are in attendance, inappropriate behavior is less likely to occur), plan appropriate activities, have a definite beginning and ending to the festivities, and limit alcohol consumption.
(3) Discrimination. The problem: Employees with different religious beliefs may feel left out, and later use the party as an example of the company’s intolerance for their belief system. In addition, well-meaning gift spoofs can backfire when they focus on stereotypes about age, race, religion, disability or gender. The solution. Be inclusive. Suggestions include delivering a speech to employees that mentions a variety of religious and ethnic holidays and wishes everyone well, in printed announcements refer to the event as a “Holiday Party” rather than a “Christmas Party” or “Hanukkah Party” or “Kwanza Party,” etc., include decorations that are representative of different traditions, and solicit employee suggestions in planning the event. If you receive a complaint, take it seriously and listen to what the employee has to say. Discourage “gag” gifts that could be perceived as offensive.
The best advice is for you to be a good role model. You set the tone for how employees are expected to conduct themselves at an office party, and they will be looking to you to take the lead.