This post was also written by Kimberly M. Mitchell.

Over the next few weeks, office holiday parties will invade restaurants, bars, and conference rooms across the nation. This oft-anticipated tradition may be the only time each year that all employees nosh, sip, and dance in one place. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty! This article will discuss some of the workplace issues that can arise from a holiday party gone awry, and suggest measures for minimizing the corresponding risk.

Remind Employees of Your Policies

Most company holiday parties go off without a hitch, save a few embarrassing or awkward moments. On occasion, though, serious allegations arise in the aftermath of corporate holiday gatherings. In fact, allegations of sexually explicit conduct and religious discrimination tend to spike at this time of year.

Because of these concerns, it is important for employers to reinforce their employment policies before the festivities begin. Prior to the holiday party, send an email or post a notice reminding employees of your policies governing personal conduct, discrimination, and workplace harassment. Employers may also want to provide specific examples of unacceptable holiday party conduct, such as adult-themed gifts or mistletoe props. These reminders may discourage employees from behaving badly and can prove important in defending harassment lawsuits, should one arise.

It is also important for companies to create an inclusive environment while the festivities are underway. During the party, for instance, avoid religious-themed music, decorations, or customs. Provide food and drink options suitable for all guests, including those with religious-based dietary restrictions.

Moderate the Flow of Alcohol

In some jurisdictions, employers may be liable for injuries caused by employees who consume alcohol at company functions. Accordingly, consider moderating the flow of alcohol by providing employees with drink tickets instead of unlimited access to the bar. By doing so, employers set their expectations with respect to drinking and remind employees when they have reached their limit. Also consider designating a few members of management to identify and secure safe transportation for employees who appear overly intoxicated.

Curb Unofficial Holiday Parties

Employers may also be liable for conduct that occurs during unofficial holiday gatherings paid for with company credit cards. To curb inappropriate use of company funds and your potential exposure, remind corporate-card-carrying employees of your business-expense reimbursement policy. Consider requiring them to obtain advance approval for any holiday gatherings where employees may be in attendance, and to describe their party plans, including venue, guests, date, and time.

Promptly Respond to Complaints

In the event of post-party complaints, promptly investigate and effectively resolve the claims. If you discover evidence substantiating the complaint, take immediate action to correct the harassing behavior. These actions may absolve or at least reduce corporate liability.

In the unfortunate event that you have to discipline or terminate an employee based on conduct that occurred during a holiday party, make sure that such action is consistent with prior action taken in comparable situations. Inconsistent action, even if well-intended, may be problematic.

What Does This Mean for My Company?

Office holiday parties boost morale and camaraderie, but can also be a nightmare for your human resources department if your company is not properly prepared. Consider, therefore, implementing the steps outlined above for a fun and compliant holiday season.

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