Holiday Horror Series: Part 3 – Holiday Parties: An HR Nightmare!

By Melissa M. Whitehead

It’s that magical time of year! Time for hot cocoa, warm fires, glad tidings – and office holiday parties! Office holiday parties are a time for co-workers to relax and for employers to show appreciation to employees, all of which builds office morale. Of course, office holiday parties also come with an extra serving of risk, especially when the employees get a little too, ahem, relaxed. In fact, inappropriate behavior at office parties is so common that a whole movie is based on this premise (coming out in theaters today)! The challenge faced by employers is finding a balance between providing a good time for their employees, while also preventing the horrors that can come in the holiday party environment.

Holiday Spirits 

Let’s get right to a common source of risk, shall we? Alcohol will be present at most office holiday parties. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with responsible adults enjoying adult beverages responsibly. But even just one employee who exceeds their limits can be costly. For example, there is case law suggesting that if an employee is provided alcohol at an office party, becomes intoxicated and is allowed to drive home, that employee may be considered still within “the scope of employment” and the employer may be liable for the employee’s conduct while driving home (including workers’ compensation benefits if the employee is hurt in a car accident). Of course, alcohol also lowers inhibitions, which can lead to increased risk of inappropriate behavior, as discussed below. Some possible ways of reducing the risks associated with serving alcohol are:

  • Serve with a meal, with servers controlling the portions
  • Give employees a limited number of “drink tickets” for the bar
  • Offer to provide transportation home (let employees know in advance that the company will call them an Uber or a cab upon request)

The Gift of Inappropriate Behavior

Most employees have at least reviewed company policies on appropriate conduct in the workplace – but many seem to throw those guidelines out the window when it comes to an office party! In the relaxed atmosphere of a party, especially when alcohol is lowering inhibitions, employees suddenly feel free to say and do things that they otherwise would never say or do in the workplace. Employees often feel free at an office party to make jokes and innuendos that they know are otherwise off-limits. Or the employee who has been harboring a crush on a co-worker is suddenly emboldened by holiday spirit (and spirits) to make his move, but those advances are not welcome. Of course, inappropriate behavior is not limited to sexual harassment! Employees may branch into inappropriate and even prohibited topics of conversation. For example, Supervisor Sally may know that she cannot discuss Employee Emma’s medical leave, but suddenly her inhibitions are lowered and she answers Employee Busybody when asked in a hushed tone, “so, what is the deal with Emma, anyway?” It is important to remember that workplace policies (and laws!) still apply at the office holiday party, and you may want to send out a reminder to that effect before the party, to at least your supervisors. Also, if there are any complaints about conduct at the holiday party, you must investigate and discipline appropriately, just as you would with any workplace complaints.

To Pay or Not to Pay

A common question is whether employees must be paid wages for time spent at the office holiday party (which could mean overtime wages). The answer hinges on whether attendance is mandatory. If you require employees to attend the party, then you will be required to pay wages, including overtime where appropriate. However, if you make attendance optional, no wages need be paid.

Best wishes and glad tidings as you navigate the tricky waters of the HR nightmare that is an office holiday party – and remember, we’re here if you need us to help recover the morning after!

Stay tuned for Part 4 of our Holiday Horror Series on December 16th.