Business

Lynne Curry: Holiday parties need good planning

It was the ultimate office party disaster.

When Telstra threw its holiday party, several employees booked hotel rooms so they didn't have to drive home. To save costs, employees shared rooms.

That night, a tipsy female employee brought three male employees into the hotel room she shared with two female co-workers who had already turned in for the night. When one of these co-workers got up to use the bathroom, she encountered the nude female employee and two male employees in the bathtub.

The next day, the company fired the female employee and three male employees, alleging their actions constituted sexual harassment of the co-workers forced to hear and see sexual noises and scenes. The terminated employee sued, claiming unfair dismissal and initially won her case.

The company, however, appealed and ultimately won -- unless you consider their time, legal expenses and the loss of four employees.

At the same time, holiday parties provide great benefit. Some employees consider them a reward. Others value the opportunity to introduce their significant others or spouses to their work family. Many enjoy the chance to informally mingle with those they see at work but never have gotten to know.

If you want to avoid a post-party legal hangover to your company's party, consider these truths and guidelines.

Many drink too much when a company provides unlimited free alcohol. Although most employers guard against this by providing only one to two drink vouchers per attendee, warm-hearted nondrinking employees often give their unused vouchers to others.

Alcohol loosens inhibitions, revealing simmering workplace disputes that can erupt in harsh words or brawls. Have plenty of good food and nonalcoholic beverages available.

Remind your managers and supervisors that they still are managers and supervisors even at a party and thus need to avoid comments or gestures that might trigger a harassment complaint. Because alcohol loosens tongues, ask your managers to avoid conversations about performance, salary, promotion or career prospects. A promise made at a party still is a promise, even if the manager can't remember it.

Ask your managers and HR personnel to step in early if they see someone inebriated or a conversation heading for disaster. Avoid disciplining employees at the party. If necessary, send them home and deal with the incident when you are back at the office and sober.

Realize not everyone wants to come to a company party and don't guilt those who don't show. Further, unless you want a wage and hour issue, don't make party attendance mandatory.

Because even parties held off-site and outside of working hours can be considered an extension of the work environment, employers remain liable for acts of harassment, discrimination, assault or other unwanted conduct. If any allegations result from party activities, follow your normal disciplinary process and ensure you investigate any complaints before taking any action.

When you serve alcohol, you accept partial liability for post-party driving accidents. Close the bar at least an hour before you plan to end the party and make sure you supply ample soft drinks and coffee. Arrange for a no-cost taxi service for any employee who is unable to safely drive home. At management's discretion, be prepared to provide hotel rooms for intoxicated employees -- one room per employee.

Finally, if you schedule a mid-week party, be clear about your expectations regarding next-day absences and don't expect miracles from those who show up for work.

-- Lynne Curry is a management trainer, consultant and president of Alaska's The Growth Company Inc. in Anchorage. Email her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.net.

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