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Dec 9, 2013
This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.

Editor’s Note: The holiday season is here, and TLNT will celebrate with some classic holiday posts from the past. Look for them over the next two weeks.

Nothing cracks me up more than war stories from employment lawyers 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.

This article is part of a series called Classic TLNT.
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