Stories about Outrageous Office Parties Include Lessons for the Wise

The office party has long been a potential powder keg. Add a relaxed and celebratory atmosphere to an open bar, music and dancing at an off-site location and all you need is one lit match for it to explode. The most outrageous office party is the subject of the latest CalChamber Capitol Coffee Break video.

Precautionary measures may well be in order. And that’s just what companies are doing this year.

According to a survey by Chicago-based consulting company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., 11% of employers won’t have a holiday party this year, even though they held a party in the past—up 4% from 2016 and the highest percentage since the recession.

Those who aren’t canceling parties may be curtailing them: More than 15% of companies will budget less for office parties this year. Furthermore, fewer of these parties will serve alcohol, use caterers or other outside services, or invite guests of employees to attend.

Only 49% of companies plan to serve alcohol at their holiday events. Last year, that number was 62%, the most ever in the decade the firm has run its survey. The number had been going up each year as the economy improved.

“Employers are currently very wary of creating an environment where inappropriate contact between employees could occur,” said Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., in a statement.

“One way to create a safer environment is to limit the guest list, hold the party during the workday, and avoid serving alcohol,” added Challenger.

Capitol Coffee Break Video

Along the lines of the Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. survey, the California Chamber of Commerce took its camera to the street and asked people around the State Capitol: “What’s your most outrageous office party story?”

Some of the responses included:

• dancing on tables;

• handing out inappropriate gag gifts;

• being too intoxicated to return to work.

The Capitol Coffee Break series puts a humorous twist on subjects that are important to California employers.

Plan Ahead

CalChamber reminds employers that if someone drinks too much and sexually harasses another employee during a holiday party, employers can be liable—depending on the circumstances. An off-site and after-hours party doesn’t reduce your liability for a company-sponsored event. Moreover, recent California cases have expanded employer liability for drunk driving accidents following company parties.

If your company wants to continue its holiday office party tradition, you need to think in advance about how to manage holiday parties to avoid potential hazards.

Employers may want to consider holding the party on-site during the workday and serving only nonalcoholic drinks at their holiday events.

If you do choose to serve alcohol at your party, take measures in advance to limit the amount people can drink. For instance, you can enforce a drink ticket policy, have bartenders instead of a self-serve bar, close the bar early, serve food, arrange for transportation home and make sure that nondrinking individuals are monitoring the situation.

Perhaps the best way to pre-empt holiday party harassment claims is through careful communication. Set the expectation—let people know what behaviors are and are not acceptable. Send out an email before the party reminding employees in advance of your company expectations regarding professional behavior at office parties and that your Equal Employment Opportunity policy applies to office social events.

Above all, don’t let one day set you up for ongoing HR headaches!

CalChamber’s free white paper Set the Tone: Sexual Harassment Prevention discusses best practices for managing your organization’s sexual harassment risk. CalChamber members can access this white paper on HRCalifornia.