HR Insights, HR Management

Overcoming Fear of the Holiday Party

Mad Men Christmas party

Nothing cracks me up more than war stories from employment lawyers talking about the holiday season.

One guy I know says his phone is ringing off the hook on the Mondays after the typical holiday party weekends (usually the first three full weekends of December). Everyone (and I mean everyone) has a story about managers who drink too much, flirtatious co-workers, and multitudes of sexual harassment policy violations in the course of a couple hours.

What has always been the gist of these proclamations has been to either eliminate the holiday party or eliminate every single risk factor (primarily alcohol). If you’re going to eliminate all of the fun things that have some inherited risk, you should save your budget and cancel it completely. And certainly, there is some bias I bring along here because there is nothing I like less than being involved in throwing a party.

However, there are some alternatives to that. You can choose to deal with the fear, accept some risk, and make a few small changes. That’s not going to please everyone though.

Don’t allow managers to consume alcohol

If you are going to eliminate alcohol, consider allowing alcohol but asking your managers to abstain. Three pieces of reasoning here:

  1. The party is for the employees. Allow them to enjoy themselves by allowing alcohol at functions.
  2. If your employees mess around, that’s one thing. If your manager messes around with an employee, bad things are coming your way.
  3. If your managers are sober, there are going to be able to observe those pesky issues that keep HR people up at night.

Just from personal experience, this may be the least popular suggestion I’ve ever thrown out in real life. Managers acted as if I asked them to drop off their mother’s at a run-down nursing home.

Most company events aren’t for management. If you want to do something fun for your managers, do a retreat or party specifically for them. The problem with holiday parties is that the segments of the population are too wide.

Hire a company to serve at your event

One of the worst ways a company can save a few bucks on the party is to do a BYOB party, supply a keg, or pour alcohol themselves. This may work if you’ve got a small group of employees, but for a large organization, you will simply be unable to keep track of it. The best thing you can do is hire a real company (not a server) that is bonded and insured to serve alcohol at events like parties. Yes, it is a tough time of year to book them and yes, they are more expensive than the alternative, but if your managers act like you just shot them because they can’t drink a little scotch at the holiday party, this may be the best bet.

Of course, for more formal parties this isn’t a problem, but having professionals dispensing alcohol along with some reasonable limits (two drink coupons? cash bar with limits?) helps reduce some of that risk.

Segment your party

The overwhelming issue I have with holiday parties aren’t the legal risks but that they really don’t build camaraderie or morale the way we all think they should. If you’re using a holiday party to help build a collaborative work environment (a legitimate excuse I’ve heard before), you’re doing it wrong.

In that case, use the rules above (or some other common sense rules) and segment the party around logical divisions in your company. Having it at a restaurant or a bar and having the manager abstain would be the best course but it is also a way to actually build camaraderie among the people you have to work with day in and day out. Having a senior leader attend is a nice touch.

Acting like adults

It doesn’t seem that complicated, does it? Parties seem to be this one area where everyone forgets that the golden rules about carrying yourself at networking and professional events is the same way you should carry yourself at an internal party. Don’t over-consume, don’t harass the staff, and don’t be a jerk. Yet it seems to be that time where, once a year, people feel they can bend the rules.

To remove risk is to remove people. People are always going to be a risk. And as I’ve constantly written about, if you let fear drive your policy decisions, you’re going to have a load of reactive rules that simply aren’t that effective.

Lance Haun is an editor at The Starr Conspiracy, a marketing agency focused on the enterprise HCM market. He spent three years as an editor at ERE Media and seven years in the recruiting and HR trenches before joining the agency. You can follow him on Twitter, circle him on Google+, check out his blog or contact him directly at lance@coug.rs.
  • http://renegadehr.net Chris Ferdinandi – Renegade HR

    Adults acting like (and being treated like) adults? What crazy thing will you come up with next!?

    • http://rehaul.com Lance Haun

      I’ve got a whole slew of crazy suggestions.

  • Chris – ReviewSNAP

    Adults acting like adults. I don’t care who you are that’s funny. One idea is to eliminate the party altogether and use the money dedicated to the party and give a bonus or gift to the employees. I’ve seen that used before and it worked great.

    • http://rehaul.com Lance Haun

      I think that’s fine. I just don’t think it is necessary. If you want a party, have a party!

    • ranavain

      There are many smaller companies/organizations for whom this wouldn’t work, though. We have a potluck party for 12 or so employees, so if we took the formal budget for it and gave it to employees, everyone would get like $3. :)

  • Jessica Sanchez

    I really enjoyed this article. Yeah it does seem that the holidays can bring some uneeded and unwanted drama. What was supposed to be fun time spent together with coworkers should not end in a crazy disaster. Come on people lets grow up and know our limits when it comes to consuming alcohol. After all, what goes on the Internet, stays on the Internet…..forever!! You wouldn’t want a picture of you pass out because you got too drunk or being overly friendly with a married coworker to go up on Facebook would you? Didn’t think so.

  • http://twitter.com/jrsalmon jrsalmon

    I’m all for having the holiday parties – I think they’re a nice gesture and a way for coworkers/peers who normally do not get to spend any time together to bond.

    I just take issue to those companies that (ahem) plan their workforce reduction (25-30%) of the staff 3 days before the party.

  • Katie Evans

    This made me laugh! It’s kind of silly how people freak out when discovering that, gasp! Their coworkers are actually human! And make a huge deal out of it. I’m not sure managers would enjoy abstaining from alcohol, though, because they’d probably feel it’s their right to have fun and let loose too. Only problem is, they’ll complain about the drama anyway, whether they drink or not.

  • http://www.changeboard.com Natalie Cooper

    Good article which raises a lot of thought. Though I can
    imagine a backlash when telling managers they can’t have a drink. What might be
    best is to throw a party, everyone can have a drink and then when people are
    starting to let their hair down, that’s when managers should make their leave.
    They’ve enjoyed a couple of glasses with their team, showed their face, made an
    appearance and then can make their excuses and leave. It’s a great tactic.

  • Cathie

    These are some great ideas if you must have a company party, but why do it?  The party is not mandatory but skipping it is not permitted. 
    They’re for the sake of the employees, but employees must be ordered to attend.  They’re not for getting drunk but there’s nothing else to do. They’re usually so noisy that team bonding conversation is limited to “What? WHAT??” They take place at an hour when employees’ kids will need a sitter. Employees’ spouses must be brought along to put on their company manners and pretend they’re enjoying meeting strangers and listening, if conversation is possible, to boring shop talk. Couldn’t we have a nice team lunch instead, even a pot luck, somewhere where we can relax with out team mates and hear one another talk? 

  • http://www.softgardenhq.com/resources/blog/ SK

    This made me laugh, I feel for those Lawyers! It’s a fair point that managers shouldn’t drink, but what a way to dampen the atmosphere; Akin to school prom with a handful of sober, all-seeing parents mingling amongst the kids. Maybe giving your managers a de-briefing beforehand might be enough to remind them to reign it in. Having said that, what’s wrong with doing something “alternative” – a friend of mine just enjoyed a day-long Christmas party starting with Ice Skating to Burgers, Bowling to Gastro Pub. Way more enjoyable than a free bar and a (typically questionable) DJ.