It’s that time of year again. Organizations across the country are busy making final preparations for their holiday parties. There’s a good chance you (or someone who works with you) is choosing venues, deciding details and preparing to thank your employees for a successful year that was.
That means it’s also time for me to play lawyerly Grinch to your fun-loving Santa.
As I outlined in my column on holiday parties at this time last year, the risk associated with social-host liability is very real for employers and should be managed carefully. That means, among other key points that I outlined in that column, closely observing employee alcohol consumption, choosing the right location and providing homebound transportation for staff when your party winds down.
This time around I want to focus on the avoidable behaviour that can turn even the best-intentioned event into an HR nightmare. But first, a word or two on having fun (admittedly, not a topic that lawyers tend to stress when offering employment-law advice). Providing an enjoyable atmosphere where colleagues can socialize and enjoy each other’s company is a great way to build team cohesiveness, improve employee engagement and boost company morale and loyalty. Like me, you’ve probably seen countless examples that prove the thesis that employees who socialize after hours tend to bond and work more productively when they’re on the clock, in turn producing the kind of great work needed to boost their organizations’ bottom lines.
With this in mind, you shouldn’t be expecting the worst to happen at your holiday party—but you should be prepared to avoid the kind of bad behaviour that besets even the most professional colleagues when the mistletoe flies and cocktails flow freely.
Having seen client Christmas parties literally devolve into full-fledged brawls, it’s important to remember that your employees spend a lot of time with one another in the workplace. So, when away from their work environment—and when alcohol is added to the mix—simmering tensions may boil over. Sometimes employee spouses enter the fray, adding another layer of complexity to the problem. Inappropriate behaviour ranging from sexual harassment to bullying can also rear its ugly head.
From the archives: 5 Lessons from the Christmas Parties
As a business owner, you don’t want to start your new year on a sour note, wasting time managing the fallout from a holiday party gone bad. Your energy should be focused on managing and growing your company. On the other hand, cancelling an event simply due to worries over liability should be a non-starter. The point, after all, is to engage your staff and give them time to enjoy one another’s company in a non-workplace environment.
With that in mind, here are three proactive ways to ensure your holiday party is memorable for all the right reasons.
1. Remind employees that they’re still (technically) at work
That means taking the time to review your workplace conduct policies—assuming they exist, and they should—and ensure they cover all circumstances relating to employee behaviour both inside and outside the office. Then take the time to subtly remind employees what those policies are and how you expect them to be followed.
Yes, it sounds like a drag. But you can conduct this kind of review without putting an unnecessary damper on your staff’s holiday cheer. Start by providing clear, written communication that re-emphasizes your company values and the criteria surrounding acceptable behaviour. Key points that should be restated include zero-tolerance policies for drug use, sexual harassment and inappropriate language or physical contact, to name a few.
Point out that such behaviour constitutes gross misconduct and will result in disciplinary action. But beware: when alcohol comes into play, common sense tends to blow away faster than Saint Nick on a reindeer-drawn sleigh. It’s the reason why designating managers to monitor employee alcohol consumption—while moderating their own imbibing—is so important.
2. Set social media rules
In an era where selfies are considered a photography art form and live-Tweeting is de rigueur during the most mundane of activities, it’s as important to set guidelines for social media use at a holiday events as it is to do so in the office. Be sure to remind employees that your social media policies apply in all settings and, if necessary, insist they wait until at least the morning after the event to post about it on Facebook or Twitter.
A (literal) sober second look allows staffers the chance to ask themselves a few important questions: If I saw this photo or message online and out of context, would it reflect poorly on our company? Would my colleague want this to be seen by potentially millions of others around the globe? Did the person I photographed dancing suggestively with his manager consent to this picture being posted online?
If the answer—as is often the case—is an emphatic “no!” the picture or message should not be posted, particularly if doing so would violate company policy. Unfortunately, it’s often only the morning after when common sense re-emerges for many party-goers.
3. Inform managers of their responsibility
As the eggnog flows, managers’ lips (not to mention hands) can loosen, which can potentially create significant problems for your organization. That’s why I recommend you book a private, management-only meeting to review policies and your expectations about their behaviour before the party. Set the bar high. Being in charge comes with many privileges, but also many responsibilities—and one of them is to abstain from fully letting loose to party with staff.
Make it explicitly clear to your leaders that certain topics and behaviours are off-limits at the party. A sample of what should be completely verboten:
- Being, um, intimate with an employee—a major risk area that, despite how innocent and mutual the affection might seem at the event, could be deemed sexual harassment in a court of law or human rights tribunal.
- Discussing an employee’s salary potential or future at the company, either with that employee or, even worse, with another.
- Mentioning otherwise-confidential details of their private life.
Managers should be reminded that even at a party, they are representatives of their company, and are therefore expected to make all reasonable efforts to ensure policies are followed by everyone in attendance—including themselves.
Finally, it should go without saying that these rules apply to you. As the boss, all eyes will be on you to set the tone. Never forget that—especially when the champagne tray rolls around.
Laura Williams is an employment lawyer and founder of Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont. She has more than 15 years experience providing proactive solutions to employers aimed at reducing workplace exposures to liability and costs that result from ineffective and non-compliant workplace practices.
More columns by Laura Williams
Have you ever hosted a holiday party that went off the rails? What do you do to make sure your celebration doesn’t end in catastrophe? Share your experiences by commenting below.