Preventing Buzzed Partygoers Without Being a Buzzkill

Many problems at workplace holiday festivities arise from drinking

By Susan Milligan Dec 1, 2014
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It’s the holidays, and employers naturally want to reward workers with a party: some finger food, alcoholic drinks, festive decorations and a chance to unwind with co-workers.

What could go wrong?

A lot, if HR managers don’t properly plan.

Many of the problems that arise at workplace holiday parties are because of excessive drinking. An inebriated employee who sexually harasses a colleague or wrecks a car after leaving the party can cause a host of legal problems for a company. Most states have a “social host liability” law, meaning that corporate hosts—even when they have taken precautions to keep things from getting out of hand—can be held legally responsible for the fallout, said Mike Simon, senior employee relations consultant at TriNet, an HR consulting firm.

“The court cases tend to turn on whether the employers served alcoholic beverages,” added Steven Harz, a partner in the labor and employment department at Archer & Greiner, a regional New Jersey law firm.

In one case, Simon said, a company was held liable for sexual harassment when a worker put a sprig of mistletoe on the front of his belt. In another case, the Marriott Del Mar Hotel near San Diego, Calif., was found responsible by an appellate court when a drunk employee struck and killed another driver after attending a nonmandatory holiday party in 2009. The worker had been drinking ahead of the party and brought a flask of hard liquor to the event, where only wine and beer were served and where employees were given two drink tickets each. The worker had his flask refilled by a bartender at the event, and went home before getting back on the road with a blood alcohol level well over the legal limit to take another inebriated co-worker home. The California appellate court said in 2013 that the company benefited from the party “by improving morale and furthering employer-employee relations,” and that the employee was acting “in the scope of his employment” at the party, making Marriott responsible.

So how can HR managers help workers to have a good time while preventing them from drinking too much? Experts say it’s a matter of advance planning and party-time monitoring.

  • Set the tone early on. Remind workers of the company’s sexual harassment policy, and let them know that professional behavior is expected. “Employers need to remind all employees that the party is an employer-sponsored event,” said Cara Lovering, employment practices liability product manager at Travelers, an insurance company. She noted that even the allegation of workplace or sexual harassment violations can cost companies in legal expenses.

  • Find a way to limit or control the pace of alcohol consumption. Some companies provide a limit of two free drink tickets, which can slow down drinking. Brad Karsh, founder of JB Training Solutions, a workplace consulting company, suggested pacing the event so there are drinks, then a sit-down dinner during which the bar is closed, and then drinks and dancing afterward.

  • Consider holding the event at a restaurant. A professional bartender may be more likely to notice if someone is getting drunk, Simon said.

  • Offer alternatives. Food is critical, Karsh said, as are nonalcoholic beverages.

  • Make it a family event. Invite spouses, significant others and even children to the event to give it a family feel, said Harley Storrings, a labor and employment attorney with the Ft. Lauderdale firm of Arnstein & Lehr. “People are better behaved when their spouses are there,” he said.

  • Offer transportation. Provide designated drivers or free taxi rides. Some companies might even block out hotel rooms, if the event is held at or near a hotel, so inebriated workers can sleep it off, Harz said.

  • Remind employees to behave responsibly. “The fine line you want to walk as an employee is having a good time and having a few drinks, but not being the person everyone’s talking about on Monday morning,” Karsh said.

Susan Milligan is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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