Curtailing Those Holiday Spirits

Advice on all things HR from Shari Lau, SHRM-SCP, SHRM’s knowledge manager. E-mail your questions to Shari at AskShari@shrm.org.

By Shari Lau
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HR Magazine November 2015Should we serve alcohol at company holiday parties?

As the holidays approach, HR professionals will once again ponder whether “to serve or not to serve.” Surveys indicate that most employers do provide alcohol at holiday gatherings. However, each year we worry: Will this be the year something goes wrong? Should we quit while we’re ahead?

I say yes—and advise against serving alcohol. I know, I know, I’m a killjoy. Many employees look forward to having a few drinks and socializing with their co-workers, and adult beverages can be a way to boost employee morale, enhance camaraderie and ratchet up the fun.

But you have to weigh those benefits against the much more considerable downsides. Employers can be at serious legal risk if a drunk employee drives home and injures someone or makes a pass at a co-worker that leads to a sexual harassment claim.

And now there’s a new risk in town, one that can hurt careers, brands and company reputations overnight: social media.

Already there are social media accounts dedicated to “embarrassing party photos,” and these accounts are just waiting for new additions from your employees.

Even if workers post only to their own pages, with a click heard ’round the world, photos can go viral overnight. Inebriated employees might post lots of things that wouldn’t seem so funny—or worthy of sharing—in the sober light of day.

What kinds of things, you ask? Imagine a Vine video of employees engaging in dirty dancing or performing a provocative karaoke rendition of Robert Palmer’s “Simply Irresistible.” Or one that captures the emcee using profanity or commenting on Monica’s low-cut holiday blouse when he thought the mic was off. What about an Instagram photo of Bob from accounting passed out at the table or a Facebook post that shares an image of two employees from public relations engaging in, well, public relations?

All these things could embarrass employees, offend customers and dissuade potential hires. And while they may all have perfectly harmless back stories, none of that will matter once the posts appear on social media with captions naming your company—not to mention that these “memories” will live forever online.

That’s why my recommendation is not to go there at all.

But for those who decide they want to add some spirits to enhance the holiday spirit, they can minimize the risk of liability and embarrassment by taking the following steps:

  • Send pre-party reminders to staff of company policies on appropriate workplace conduct, anti-harassment and social media.
  • Change the holiday dinner to a lunch, when people are less likely to overindulge.
  • Make it a cash bar.
  • Have plenty of food and nonalcoholic beverages available.
  • Enlist the aid of managers to watch for employees who drink too much.
  • Offer free taxi rides for those who shouldn’t drive home.

Weigh the pros and cons for yourself, and make sure you’re aware of all the risks before announcing that open bar.

Should employees who opt not to participate in company events be required to work the full day?

The invitation has gone out to all staff: “Come spend the day at the zoo! Be here by 10 a.m. to catch the bus, or meet us there for lunch! Those not wishing to attend may use paid time off or work their normal schedule.”

Employers can certainly do this; it’s a paid day, and they’ve given employees a clear choice—either attend the company event or work. But be advised that resentment may set in for those who opt not to be there. Why should they have to work when the others are basically getting a day off?

So, you may have some employee relations issues on your hands. To avoid or minimize those, ask yourself a simple question: What is the intent of the event? Some gatherings have been going on for so long, often on an annual basis, that they aren’t given mindful consideration. And this may be at the heart of the problem.

For example, if your company event is intended to reward employees for completing another successful year, it’s best to offer them something they want. In the case of the field trip to the zoo, those who can’t or don’t want to attend receive no reward, and instead put in more work hours than those who go on the excursion. What’s the harm in allowing those folks to come in late or leave early instead? In doing so, the sense of fairness is restored and all employees feel rewarded.

If your event is meant to encourage team-building and engagement, take a more structured approach. An outdoor picnic can help promote teamwork through organized games or activities, for example. Those who can’t attend a gathering intended for a work-related purpose may be less likely to feel slighted.

Bottom line: If your event is intended to be a reward, make sure it is one—for everyone. ​​

Should we restrict employees from posting to social media from their personal devices during work hours?

While it’s fine to have policies limiting personal communication during work time, banning specific activities on employees’ own devices may cross a line. Today, people carry their smartphones all the time. To some, these devices are like another limb. Getting involved with what people do with their own property would likely seem invasive and even punitive, showing the employer’s lack of trust. Besides, how can you prove people were posting to their personal accounts given that, in most cases, employers can’t access them? That opens another can of worms.

We live in a world of increasing distractions, most of which are available at the touch of a button. To restrict one diversion would only lead to the discovery of 10 others. It’s probably not worth it to risk making your best employees feel controlled or punished in order to solve one worker’s productivity problem.

Instead, handle the issue individually as needed. If Joe is behind on his goals or consistently missing deadlines, and you see him on his phone frequently, take it up with him directly. It’s fine to suggest that less time on his personal devices may be a good start, but keep the discussion focused on his goals and how he can boost his productivity. Whether he’s posting to social media several times a day, taking smoking breaks or socializing, it’s all part of the same issue—and it’s Joe’s issue, not everyone else’s. Plenty of people are capable of managing their time well enough to post occasionally to a social media site while still meeting their goals.

There is a natural inclination to try to control the latest distraction in the workplace, and we often churn out new policies with good intentions. But before doing so, give some thought to the underlying problem you’re trying to solve. More often than not, you already have policies in place to tackle the issue on an individual basis.

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