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Don't Let Your Holiday Party Become an HR Headache

Published Wednesday, November 28, 2018
by Gail Cecchettini Whaley, Esq.

The continuing focus on workplace misconduct—harassment, bullying, violence and just a general lack of respect—may cause some businesses to rethink their traditional office holiday party.

But before you say “bah-humbug,” there are ways to make sure your office party doesn’t create a holiday headache. We’ll discuss some of the common problems and provide you with some solutions.

When the Party Keg Becomes a Powder Keg

Holiday parties have the potential to explode…and not in a good way. For instance, a festive, laid-back atmosphere plus alcohol, dancing, and an off-site location can be a ticking time bomb. As an employer, you can be held liable for sexual harassment during a holiday party—even if you hold the party off-site and after normal working hours. In addition, California courts have found that other transgressions, such as drinking and driving after a holiday party, can create liability for a company.

According to a recent survey by Chicago-based consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., 65% of companies plan to hold a holiday party this year, the lowest number since the recession.

In fact, of those companies that are having a party this year, nearly over one-third reported they have concerns about inappropriate celebrating following the #MeToo movement and have addressed or will address this issue with staff prior to the party.

Nearly half of the companies surveyed said they plan to serve alcohol at their holiday events, yet serving alcohol can lead to a less safe environment.

A 2011 survey by Caron Treatment Centers reported that many workers have witnessed inappropriate alcohol-fueled behavior at a work-related outing:

• 30% have seen someone flirt with a co-worker or supervisor
• 28% witnessed a fellow partygoer drive drunk
• 26% indicated a colleague or supervisor shared inappropriate details about themselves or a co-worker
• 19% witnessed someone arguing or becoming aggressive with a colleague or supervisor
• 9% claimed co-workers or supervisors engaged in sexual activity while under the influence of alcohol

Nine Party Planning Tips

Do you want to still hold an office holiday party? If your answer is yes, remember that fun and moderation can go hand in hand.

These advance planning tips can help avoid future problems:

1. Set the tone in advance about acceptable behavior at your office holiday party—for example, you could send out an email ahead of time reminding employees that all office workplace policies apply to your holiday party, including your anti-harassment policy.
2. Consider holding the party on-site and during working hours.
3. Serve only non-alcoholic drinks at office holiday events.
4. If you choose to serve alcohol, consider enforcing a drink ticket policy, using a bartender, closing the bar early, serving food, and paying for Uber/Lyft or other rides home.
5. Be a role model – managers and supervisors should lead by example.
6. Put 1 or more people in charge of monitoring the party to make sure workplace rules are being followed (a.k.a. “The Grinch” team”).
7. Maintain a workplace appropriate dress-code for office parties.
8. Create an inclusive environment by making the holiday non-denominational.
9. Invite family (spouses, significant others, children) to attend—which may encourage employees to be on their best behavior.

Use an Employee Action Hotline to Make Your Employees Feel Safe.

When it comes to workplace misconduct—whether at the office party or not—an employer wants to know! An employee action hotline is a step in the right direction. Hotlines increase people’s likelihood of reporting incidents, and also make the reports more accurate and effective.

• Allows employers to learn about potential wrongful acts before they escalate or in time to take corrective action
• Acts as a sexual harassment deterrent and is a critical element in avoiding future litigation
• Assists in maintaining workplace standards
• Allows employees another avenue for reporting (anonymously or not) their observations or suspicions

“The impact of #MeToo has been overwhelmingly positive, and it’s clear the movement is spurring companies to enact important policies to protect workers,” said Challenger. Let an employee action hotline help you help your workforce.

CEA now offers an Employee Action Hotline—learn more about how it can help you protect your employees and your company.


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