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Who’s to blame when parties really get out of hand?
Who’s to blame when they get poorly planned?
– “Party Out of Bounds,” The B-52s

‘Tis the season for the annual office holiday party planning. The idea is a good one: express your appreciation for the hard-working team that’s led to the company’s successful year. The reality, however, can often lead to harassment claims, employee injuries, and HR headaches.

A recent Robert Half survey of managers’ worst moments at holiday parties contains an alarming list of bad decisions:

  • Turning a dance contest into a brawl
  • Food fights
  • Falling asleep under a table
  • Break dancing (resulting in a broken ankle)
  • Fisticuffs with the boss
  • Attempted walking across a swimming pool (you know how that ends)
  • Obscene utterances
  • Discussion of company confidential information
  • Inappropriate photos, touching, invitations

Company holiday parties can create a legal minefield for employees, managers, and the company. With smartphone technology and social media, a party indiscretion can go viral within hours. Add alcohol to the mix, and employer liability increases exponentially.

Smart Strategies for Your Office Holiday Party

Employers hosting holiday parties—and the company executives who will be attending—should consider some strategies to responsibly ring in the holidays.

  1. Responsible management of alcohol. Despite the risks of alcohol-fueled bad behavior, a Society for Human Resource Management survey revealed that 59% of employers intended to serve alcohol at their year-end/holiday parties. If alcohol will be served at a company party, consider having the party off-site at a restaurant, and limit alcohol options to wine and beer. Avoid an “open bar” where the bottomless glass can expose your company to potential liability for impaired driving crashes, workers’ compensation claims (see the aforementioned break dancing broken ankle), or the harassment claim arising from flirting while intoxicated. A better practice would be the use of a cash bar or ticket system to limit the number of drinks. If the party is held on company premises, hire professional servers with instructions to cut off inebriated guests and card anyone who appears to be underage. Always have food on hand, and offer non-alcoholic beverages.
  2. Transportation. Budget for transportation to ensure inebriated guests get home safely. Ride share options such as Uber or Lyft cost far less than an impaired driving crash. Other alternatives include taxis, designated drivers assigned to take employees home, and hired transportation (bus or limo) to off-site events.
  3. Guests. Consider inviting spouses/dates of employees as a way to rein in possible bad behavior. The holiday parties that seem to give rise to the greatest morning-after regrets are the all-staff/no-spouse events. Combine high heels, a few drinks, some dancing, and no spousal supervision, and you’ve got a recipe for a sexual harassment claim. If your party is an employee-only event, a reminder of company policies prohibiting harassment may be wise in the week before the festivity. Managers should be instructed that their behavior sets the tone, and they are expected to act appropriately at all times. “After-parties” should be discouraged. If clients or customers attend the company party, all employees should be reminded to behave in a manner consistent with company standards. And by all means, skip the mistletoe.
  4. Attendance expectations. Holiday parties should be optional, not required. Required attendance can make employees uncomfortable if they prefer not to socialize with co-workers. Moreover, requiring attendance could lead non-exempt employees to claim they should be paid for additional time if the party is held outside normal business hours. Required attendance could also spawn a workers compensation claim if an injury occurs during the party. If the party has an obvious Christmas theme, attendance could be uncomfortable for employees who don’t observe Christian religious holidays.

When attending a company holiday party, remember you have to work with these people the next day. Don’t be the person whose drunken “Dancing with the Stars” moves, under-the-table nap, or unfunny celebrity impersonations become the stuff of legend (and not in a good way).

With proper planning and some wise choices, the company holiday party can provide a positive experience and a welcome reward for a year of hard work. Make sure to establish appropriate ground rules to prevent the party from going off the rails.

Company bacchanalias may make big money at the box office and inspire legendary holiday-themed sitcom episodes, but, in the real world, they’re just a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Alyson Brown

Alyson Brown represents employers and executives in all facets of the employment relationship. Board Certified in Labor and Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms. Brown has tried cases in state and federal courts throughout Texas and in other states. She represents clients in a broad range of industries, including health care, banking, energy, high-tech, retail, manufacturing, hospitality, and nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at

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