Office Holiday Party Guidance

‘Tis the season, and we all know what that means — warm drinks, cold weather and, of course, the ever-popular office holiday party!

We recognize that not all of you are going to pair their holiday party with alcohol, and there are many options which do not require it. But, if you are hosting a party and alcohol is served, there are some things you should consider.

We all enjoy the chance to kick back on the boss’ dime from time to time and, for many of us, having an alcoholic drink or two is just part of the experience. 

Whether you’re knee-deep into party-planning mode, or you’re just starting to think about how to celebrate the season with your coworkers, you obviously want to make sure all participants have a great time at your event. But you’ll also want to be aware of the risks associated with mixing business with pleasure and take steps to limit your company’s liability should anything go wrong (and there is no shortage of stories about holiday parties where alcohol is served going terribly wrong).

From inappropriate confessions of unrequited love, to someone’s spouse having a little too much spiked eggnog and giving the business owner a piece of their mind, the potential for trouble is endless. 

Here’s how to proceed with caution and avoid a nightmarish return to work — or worse, a trip to court — after your next office holiday party:

1. Hold your holiday party off the business’ premises.

When you hold your office party off of your business property it reduces your risk of liability. You’ll also want to avoid having the event at your home or personal property if at all possible for the same reason. If you know that your crew tends to get rowdy, think about using a hotel as your venue and offer a discounted rate to keep your employees from driving home after the festivities.


2. Schedule the party for a weeknight. 

People tend to party more responsibly if they know they need to get up the following morning to go to work.


3. Office parties should be voluntary — not mandatory. 

You can’t force someone to be social or enjoy themselves, so mandating that employees attend office social events might have the opposite effect if your goal for your office party involves team building. Plus, if they are required to be present, employees could make a legitimate claim that they should be paid for showing up. This is no joke! In fact, we’ve seen it happen before.


4. Hire holiday staff. 

Hire a professional bartender to serve drinks. This restricts access to any underage drinkers who might be in attendance, and a pro should be able to gracefully cut off those who’ve had too much to drink. Avoid DIY drink stations that invite heavy pours, underage mixologists, and day-after cautionary tales (this includes the vat of spiked eggnog).


5. Limit alcohol consumption. 

Leave the hard liquor at home and stick to low-gravity beverages like beer and wine. Provide plenty of water and other non-alcoholic options (for free, of course) for non-drinkers, and to make sure there are options available for those looking to pace out their consumption. If you want to contribute to the collective bar tab, think about distributing a limited number of tickets instead of providing an open bar with a limit. This way you can control the amount of alcohol you provide.
10 tips to limit your business liability during a holiday party infographic

6. Provide lots of food. 

Food is a must at your holiday party. Not only is a tasty spread festive and inviting, but it gives partygoers something to do other than stand around sipping on booze. Food also plays the very important role of slowing the body’s absorption of alcohol—while it does not negate the effects, a tipsy buzz will take longer to surface on a full stomach. Serve carbohydrate and protein-heavy options for the best effect.


7. Keep it neutral. 

Not everyone celebrates the same holidays or in the same way, but it’s also important to keep in mind that some people don’t celebrate at all, and some even find the holidays depressing. Further, some religions forbid jovial holiday celebrations and gift-giving outright, and others simply don’t celebrate winter holidays in a big way. Don’t penalize non-participation, formally or informally.

This should probably go without saying, but your office holiday party should be respectful of others’ religious preferences. Keep your invitations, decorations, and traditions secular. Avoid prayers at any company-sponsored events that include management and watch the jokes about the rabbi and the priest – people may be more affected by such “locker room talk” than you realize. 


8. Limit the length of the party. 

Even if there’s no set time at which you all plan to officially call it a night, it’s a really good idea to limit the amount of time during which alcohol is served. Not only can you manage the amount of alcohol your employees can drink by limiting the length of the party, but you can also give your employees a chance to sober up a bit before heading home by cutting service off an hour or so before the venue kicks you out.


9. Office policies remain in effect. 

Make it clear that employees are expected to act responsibly and that workplace rules remain in effect during your office party. Consider making all managers (at least those who are exempt) “on duty” as far as keeping an eye on others to ensure that rides are scheduled and that all concerns can be dealt with by a sober person. 

Keep in mind that drinking blurs office boundaries that are otherwise clear, so leave the mistletoe out of your decor to avoid tempting employees to stray from office social norms. Sexual harassment complaints stemming from holiday parties are extremely common. When drinking is involved, miscommunications and misinterpretations become more frequent, which can lead to complaints. 


10. Provide a transportation option. 

The most hazardous part of the night will be ensuring everyone gets home safely—no celebration is worth an accident or a DUI! As if that wasn’t scary enough, employers in the past have been held liable when an employee drove home from a work party intoxicated. 

Rest easy and provide Uber, Lyft, or taxi options via a corporate account and publicize the fact in advance. It’s a very small price to pay for peace of mind and the safety of your team. You’ll also want to be able to show that you communicated this information to attendees, should you need to.


With all of the above points in mind, come up with a list of conditions and expectations you want to communicate to your team as you plan your office party. Then, compile those points in a single document and distribute it to your entire team well in advance (it would also be prudent to post those details in a common break area).

Though there is certainly some risk involved with throwing an office party — especially one that involves serving alcoholic beverages — with a little bit of planning, that risk can be successfully managed and mitigated. 

We hope the info you found here helps make your holiday party planning a little less stressful. From all of us at CEDR Solutions, we wish you and yours a happy and restful holiday season!

Nov 19, 2019

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance based on applicable local, state and/or federal U.S. employment law that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.

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