Yes, we know.
HR is often named the bearer of bad news. The fun killers and the rule barons, guarding piles of policies and mountains of paperwork. HR even has rules for the holiday party – one of the crown jewels of the company culture.
Alas, those rules ensure employees don’t come away from party time feeling hurt, harassed, or worse. With the help of Joseph Harris, partner and employment law attorney at White Harris Law (and some GIFs from your favorite workplace TV shows), we put together this guide so HR managers can ensure their employers plan the best possible party for their workforce with the least amount of pain.
Tip 1: Party planning is not just about the party
The biggest mistake employers make when planning a holiday party, Harris said, is that they don’t prepare enough in advance.
Pro party planning goes beyond picking a venue, arranging catering and then letting everyone know when and where the shindig is going to go down. If an employer doesn’t consider the potential party pitfalls, that’s when they get slammed with EEO violations and sexual harassment violations.
“This is a good time to internally check your EEO and sexual harassment policies that expressly cover after-work events and after hours,” Harris said. The month or two before the holiday party is a good excuse to do a workplace-wide training on those policies if one hasn’t been done recently, he added. If one has, often a reminder memo will suffice.
Be sure also to consider your party a holiday party versus a Christmas party or otherwise to avoid accusations of religious discrimination, though this has certainly become more commonplace as of late. And, honestly…forget the mistletoe. Just throw it out.
Tip 2: Keep it family friendly
Remind everyone that, no matter how fun and exciting it may be (and it certainly is), the holiday party is still technically a work event. Everyone should conduct themselves as such.
One practical pointer from Harris: Make it a family event. Invite significant others and perhaps even kids.
“Employees are much less likely to behave poorly if husbands, wives or even kids are around,” Harris said. It will also force any decorating or activity planners to keep appropriateness in mind.
Tip 3: Yes, here is the alcohol rule
Many lawyers advise that employers simply do not offer any alcoholic drinks at all to avoid any chance of liability. But employers don’t have to completely abstain to keep alcohol use in check.
If you decide to serve alcohol, make sure the event is held in an off-site location with professional bartenders. “You don’t want employees serving each other drinks,” Harris said. (Our favorite paper sellers at Dunder Mifflin break this rule a lot.)
Employers should contact their insurance carrier to see if they cover any alcohol liabilities. Additionally, designate sober monitors to serve as spotters for those who might have had a little too much -- management are good candidates for this job. And if the party won’t be in an area with easily accessible transportation, consider providing safe transportation home.
Tip 4: Keep it voluntary
Very important: Employers must allow employees (like our friend Jim, here) not to attend. Not only is involuntary attendance immediately 100% less fun – it could pose a huge wage liability.
“If going to the party is a requirement – or you are giving out bonuses or what have you at the event – it could be considered working time and employees would need to be compensated for it,” Harris said. Be sure to emphasize that it is a voluntary event.
And remember: planning a party is still work. If you have lower level employees calling around to plan the event, those employees need to be compensated for that time, even if it is not their typical work.
“They should not be punching out to make calls about the holiday party,” Harris said.
These rules may not feel very festive, but for many workplace issues – especially sexual harassment cases – the holiday party was a direct culprit. Preparing ahead of time will keep employees happy in the long run. And, of course, allow for a fabulous time for all.