The holiday party can be a highlight of a small company's year — or an event everyone would rather forget. When there are problems, which can land a small business in legal trouble, they often start with people having too much alcohol.
A business owner can lessen the chance of trouble by keeping an event low-key, holding it during the day and/or limiting how much people can drink.
A company is legally responsible in most states if party guests, whether they're employees, customers or their dates, are hurt in or cause alcohol-related accidents. It doesn't have to be a traffic accident — if someone falls and is hurt at the party or on the way home, the boss can be liable. There's also the possibility that someone who's had too much to drink can say or do something offensive, sexually harassing or even violent. Again, it's going to be the boss's problem.
Human resources professionals say owners and managers need to set the tone for the party, reminding employees that while the event is intended to be a celebration, it is a work-related affair and that everyone is expected to behave accordingly. And, in the case of sexual harassment or violence, there will be disciplinary consequences. Owners and managers need to act as chaperones, making sure no one's drinking or behavior gets out of hand.
HR consultant Crystal Barnett fields more inquiries around this time of the year from small businesses needing guidance about making their parties trouble-free.
"They're asking for ideas about what other clients do," says Barnett, who's with the Atlanta office of HR provider Insperity.
Barnett is seeing companies move away from big blowout parties, preferring more intimate get-togethers or sit-down meals in a restaurant. And owners recognize that during the holidays, family time is what matters to many staffers, so their parties are being held in the afternoon. Both trends have the benefit of being safer for everyone.
"It cuts down on drinking," Barnett says.
Some companies that have afternoon parties, or that take the staff out for lunch, give employees an added bonus of the rest of the day off, Barnett says.
Companies that want to limit alcohol have several options. Some decide to make their parties alcohol-free. Others hire professional bartenders and give staffers tickets that can be exchanged for drinks. To be most effective, tickets should have employees' names or other identifying information on them, and staffers should have to show an ID card. That will prevent people from giving tickets to one another.
Another option is a cash bar, Barnett says. People tend to drink less when it's on their own tab. And there should be a cutoff time after which alcohol won't be served, so people have a chance to metabolize the alcohol in their systems before they leave.
Owners may want to have car services available in case someone has had too much and needs help getting home.
While owners and managers can put their staffers on notice that they're expected to behave, they don't have as much power over spouses, partners and clients. All the more reason to keep an eye on everyone's behavior.
Attorneys and HR providers recommend that owners be sure they have adequate insurance coverage before hosting a party. That can include property and casualty insurance and also employment practices liability insurance, which is intended to cover sexual harassment, discrimination and other problems that can arise at an event. If the party is being held off-site, an owner should make sure that location also has insurance.
And, if something does happen, a boss needs to be upfront about any bad behavior, accidents or misunderstandings, and not try to sweep it under the rug.