How to Survive Your Office Holiday Party

Rides home, limiting alcohol, providing activities can limit bad behavior and liability

By Forrest Hartman Dec 9, 2016
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In December, 3 out of 4 companies will host holiday parties for workers, according to Chicago-based global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. And while alcohol, dancing and late hours can make such parties risky, there are simple ways to let employees have fun while reducing liability, experts say.

"I personally love holiday parties for a lot of different reasons," said Cassandra Pratt, human resources and recruiting director for Progyny, a New York City-based digital healthcare company, which provides fertility benefits to employers.

"One, the fact that you are able to get to know your colleagues outside of work, connect with them, bond, laugh and not have it be just centered around business and what needs to get done," she said in an interview with SHRM Online. "It does form a different type of bond than what you do on a day-to-day basis in the 9-to-5 world."

Pratt and other HR experts believe there are a few keys to hosting a successful, problem-free party:

Limit the hours. She prefers events to start right after work so employees aren't tempted to pre-party before they arrive. She also suggested limiting the party to about three hours and telling bartenders they can't serve shots to reduce the likelihood of drunkenness.

Provide rides. David Lewis, president and CEO of the Norwalk, Conn., HR outsourcing and consulting firm OperationsInc, agreed that shorter parties are better. He also suggested that company executives think about ways to get employees home safely. Lewis said some of his clients pay for Uber drivers to shuttle all workers to the party and then home.

Create a 'respect' memo. Remind employees, in writing, of the company's policies on harassment as well as the dress code, suggested Philippe Weiss, managing director of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, a law firm dedicated to compliance services and training subsidiary. Weiss is based in Chicago.

Send for the spouses. "Many companies invite spouses for common sense reasons, as they can act as the 'better half' that tempers the worst instincts and inclinations of their mates," Weiss said.

Lose the mistletoe. And forget about "party games that involve revealing personal secrets or require body contortions [or] physical contact or any sort of disrobing. In fact, party games in general pose all sorts of unknown risks," Weiss said.

Limit alcoholic beverages. "Have you come up with a plan to ensure that you're not providing alcohol to people and then sending them on the road where you absolutely could find yourself in the position of some measure of responsibility for their condition and [the] results?" Lewis asked. "Play this just like any other chess game," he said. "Think three or four moves ahead. So, if I provide alcohol for everybody, what are my risk points? How do I manage that? Maybe you only provide alcohol through a ticket system so that people can only have a maximum of two drinks. Maybe you collect all keys at the front door so nobody feels singled out."

Do more than serve drinks. Pratt said that planned activities can keep parties from spinning out of control.

"If you have an activity, like a white elephant gift exchange or something else, you break up that time of just going back and forth to the bar," she said. "People are interacting in a way that they wouldn't normally interact, and you're taking up, let's say a half hour or 45 minutes and focusing on more of a team-building event rather than just having more drinks."

[SHRM members-only resource: Share Your Office Party Nightmares on SHRM Connect]

Monitor behavior. Sharlyn Lauby, SHRM-SCP, president of Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based HR consulting firm ITM Group Inc., agreed that it is important that somebody monitor the party to stop problems, but she says that person needn't be from the HR department.

"I've always felt employees were waiting for HR to leave the party so they could let loose a little," she said. "So, once the entrees were served and speeches over, I left. Another senior manager would make sure that things didn't get out of hand. The employees would tell me how much they respected the fact that I didn't hang around to watch over them. Human resources isn't the only management representative in attendance. I would make sure that everyone from the management team understands the importance of being a responsible party host."

Lewis added that it's important for management to communicate expectations to employees in advance and then actively monitor what happens at the party.

Office Party Employee Checklist

Tell employees not to:

  1. Dance provocatively.
  2. Drink too much.
  3. Kiss anyone on the lips.
  4. Hug people they normally don't hug.
  5. Interrupt others who are talking to the boss or CEO so they can introduce themselves.
  6. Aggressively pursue people in power for a conversation.
  7. Ask a co-worker out on a date.
  8. Engage in harassing behavior.
  9. Tell someone they work with how hot they look.
  10. Drive home if they have been drinking.

"Try as best as you can to head off bad behavior, because at the end of the day those few hours of fun can be career-ending," Lewis said.

Forrest Hartman, a former film critic for Gannett News Service at USA Today and the Reno-Gazette Journal, is a freelance film and entertainment writer and a journalism professor at California State University, Chico.

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