Food Fights, Brawls and Sprains—Get a Grip on Your Holiday Party

Advice for keeping workplace festivities sane

By Susan Milligan December 8, 2016
Food Fights, Brawls and Sprains—Get a Grip on Your Holiday Party

​Spraining an ankle while break dancing. Bad-mouthing other employees. Trying to walk across a swimming pool before sinking into the water.

All are things that happened at holiday office parties, according to a survey by the specialized staffing firm Robert Half Finance and Accounting, North America. And the kicker? These transgressions were committed not by rank-and-file employees but by managers.

"Managers should present themselves professionally at all times. One slip-up can cause a manager to lose the respect of their team," said Robert Half vice president Syed Hussain. "It's important to remember that as much as you may want to have fun, you're still the boss and employees will see you that way."

For HR managers, the annual holiday party can be a tremendous opportunity. It can help co-workers get to know one another, make staff feel appreciated, and just allow people to unwind after a long year.

It's the "unwind" part that can cause consternation for HR and, in some cases, the lawyers who have to sort out the post-party fallout.

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"The month of December is often a busy one for me. I get a lot of early-morning calls from frantic HR managers," said Pegg Wood, a member of the employment law group at the West Orange, N.J.-based firm Chiesa, Shahinian & Giantomasi PC. "I get stories of managers behaving badly or low-level employees behaving badly."

With the economy improving and corporate profits up, holiday parties are becoming more common, according to a recent survey by the global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. in Chicago. The firm's annual look at holiday office shindigs found that 80 percent of companies are planning to host holiday parties this year. Of that group, more than 21 percent are budgeting more for their events than in recent years, according to the survey of about 100 HR executives representing a variety of industries.

"After dipping in the last half of 2015, corporate profits are back above $1.6 trillion, according to government data. Our survey suggests that employers are ready to spend some of those profits on their workers," said John A. Challenger, the company's chief executive officer.

Party on, experts say. But be aware of potential problems, and have a plan to prevent misbehavior and to defuse the situation if misbehavior does occur.

In the Robert Half study, conducted by an outside consulting firm, respondents said they observed managers:

  • Turning a dance contest into a brawl.
  • Throwing food and opening a gift intended for someone else.
  • Announcing a resignation.
  • Revealing confidential company information.
  • Sleeping under a table.

Alcohol was a factor in many of the cases, according to the survey of 2,200 chief financial officers in more than 20 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas.

"People forget that they're at a work event and engage in inappropriate behavior they would never engage in at the office that can lead to people being offended" or even hurt, said Kevin Vance, a labor and employment lawyer in the Miami office of the international firm Duane Morris LLP. "Grab somebody [at a company party], and it could lead to liability for the company as well."

Even if a claim lacks merit and is dismissed, the company has to spend time and money dealing with it, added Vance, who chairs the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's Human Resources Committee.

HR managers have social media to deal with as well, said Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace, a New York City HR executive network and consulting firm. Social media offers all kinds of opportunities for employees to embarrass colleagues or the company if they post revealing photos or videos on their Facebook or Instagram accounts, she said.

The contentious November elections could turn a celebratory event into a shout-fest, she warned, especially if tongues are loosened with alcohol. "It has been an emotional couple of weeks," Meister said. "Is there a policy on what you're going to do if employees get into a heated discussion about the presidential election? How can you be prepared for that?"

Tim Mulligan, chief human resources officer at the San Diego Zoo, plans office parties with an eye toward conflict avoidance. (He's a lawyer, too, and is keen to avoid a legal mess.) Some advice Mulligan offers:

  • Begin the party in the afternoon rather than in the evening to discourage heavy drinking and have set start and stop times. The zoo's holiday party starts at 5:30 p.m. and ends at 9:30 p.m.
  • If you are going to serve alcohol, give out drink tickets to minimize overindulgence and serve some sort of food. Encourage employees to take a cab or car service home. (Some companies will pay for the rides.)
  • Consider having the party offsite and hiring bartenders who will refuse to serve an intoxicated person. Close the bar well before the event ends.
  • Schedule a program, such as employee recognition and entertainment, that continues after the bar closes.

Putting such restrictions in place means that everyone has fun, including HR professionals, Mulligan said. "This way, it's not me running around being the HR police," he said.

Others suggest sending out an e-mail ahead of time reminding employees of standards of behavior for the party, including guidance on the use of photos and videos posted on social media. Assigning a couple of managers to monitor behavior and drinking can keep things from getting out of control, Wood said.

Instead of an evening event, companies might consider having a holiday breakfast with festive food, said Vanessa Matsis-McCready, assistant general counsel and HR manager of Engage PEO, a Hollywood, Fla.-based HR outsourcing firm. "Very few people tend to consume alcohol at breakfast," she said.

While expanding the guest list can add substantially to the cost, inviting spouses and other family members can quite literally have a sobering effect, Wood said. Nearly 43 percent of the companies surveyed by Challenger, Gray & Christmas planned to invite spouses this year, up from 31 percent last year.

"If you want to change the tenor of the party, rather than blowing off steam with all the people you've worked with all year, make it a family function, maybe with a visit from Santa," Wood said.

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

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