A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: Office holiday parties are fun, but businesses need appropriate safeguards

It’s that time of year again – when office and businesses all across the country get together to eat, drink and be merry for their annual Holiday Party.

Hollywood has scripted multiple classic movies with Christmas office parties into the plot from the 1947 classic “It’s A Wonderful Life,” starring James Stewart, the 1988 thriller “Die Hard,” starring Bruce Willis, and the most recent 2016 tinsel town office festivity flick that got a little out of hand, “Office Christmas Party,” starring Jennifer Aniston.

In each of these movies, alcohol was flowing and employees were letting loose, and that is where the trouble always begins. As your trusty riskologist, I would say that the odds of international terrorists arriving to spoil the fun is minimal, but when fun and festivities are mixed with alcohol there comes plenty of risk and without the appropriate safeguards. This can turn into an employer’s worst nightmare.

Holiday parties can be a company’s best day of the year — or the worst. So I’m sorry to be the Grinch this time of year, but I can tell you with much certainty that countless careers have come to a screeching halt after partaking in a little too much festiveness at their office holiday parties, only to regret their behavior the following morning.

Employers are at risk, too, and they should plan accordingly. While enjoying these activities, it’s vital for employers to remain heedful of their duties and responsibilities to their workers, and to ensure that the company is protected from potential risks arising from these events.

End-of-year parties, if planned, paid for by the company, or held on work premises, are considered to be work functions. Therefore, the same duty of care applies as to any other work activity.

Poor behavior invigorated by alcohol or the increased informality of the holiday season can lead to injuries, as well as claims of workplace harassment/bullying or sexual harassment, for which the employer would be liable.

With such a litigious society today, businesses need to make sure to avoid some key risks to ensure their day of cheerfulness doesn’t turn into disaster.

To help manage the risks to workers and the business, employers should:

• Keep the festivities non-denominational. It is better to have a Holiday Party than a Christmas Party, a Hanukkah party, or a party that recognizes any specific holiday. This way, all employees can feel involved and the company avoids projecting the image that it prefers one religion over any others Invite everyone.

• Make sure the event is after working hours and offsite.

• Avoid letting your employees plan the entire event. Holiday parties can be a legal minefield and your employees might not be on guard for those mines if they arrange the entire party themselves.

• Do not incentivize employees with suggestions of bonuses or awards for attending.

• Avoid inviting vendors or customers.

• Remember no mistletoe. This holiday symbol is an invitation for employees to engage in behavior that is inappropriate for the workplace.

• Encourage staff to bring their spouse or significant others, because people naturally tend to behave a little better when they are around them.

• No dirty dancing contests… yes, it’s a thing.

• Remind staff of harassment and discrimination policies before the event.

• Set out usual, respectful rules, particularly as alcohol can reduce inhibitions and can lead to sexual harassment or discrimination claims.

• Make sure you have robust complaint handling procedures in place well before planning the venue.

• Make sure that entrance areas are well lit and free of obstacles to avoid slip, trip and falls.

• Check for proper egress and avoid fire risks with holiday decorations.

• Ensure that there is proper accessibility for any guests with mobility issues.

• Consider limiting or not serving alcohol if at all possible.

• Consider utilizing a drink ticket system to limit individuals’ consumption.

•If you do serve alcohol, hire a bartender who has been trained to detect over intoxication and knows how to cut people off.

• Have management cater the food and alcohol to a reputable and fully insured company that is trained to stop serving those that have had their limit, this transfer the risk away from your company.

• Check your caterer’s insurance policy to ensure it’s enforced and if it has adequate limits of liability.

• Appoint a manager to supervise the function and to check in with the bartenders to identify those that have had too much alcohol so that they can keep a close eye on them.

• Provide plenty of food and non-alcoholic drinks.

• Prepare to intervene quickly if any inappropriate behavior is being displayed.

• Cutting off the service of alcohol at least one hour before the end of the party to lessen the impact of the alcohol on those who consumed during the party before they depart. It is also a good idea to continue food service during this time period.

• Set a firm end time for the function.

• If economically feasible, arrange for free hotel accommodations for those that have traveled from out of town.

• Arrange for free transportation so no one needs to drive after drinking.

Lastly, be aware that with the invention of social media there will be a plenty of amateur photography going on at the party, and it’s very tempting for people to capture an embarrassing or unexpected moment. This could open your company up to a data consent issues with employees being photographed in embarrassing situations without their consent.

There’s also a higher risk of inappropriate messages or images being posted on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram – pretty much in real-time – that could harm the reputation of individuals and possibly your company. The risk is pretty obvious in this case and companies need to ensure that their employees are fully aware of the potential disciplinary outcomes of an ill-judged upload that is re-used beyond your control and risks going viral across the Internet.

Then, finally ….being a risk management and safety professional, feel free to send me an invite to your company holiday party to serve as your Holiday Party risk manager! I love a good holiday party as much as the next person and I promise not to share any details in next year’s column.

Be Safe, My Friends

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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