How businesses can avoid the legal and workplace dramas that can result from holiday partying

NEW YORK, N.Y. – If John Olajide’s staffers have one too many at his company’s holiday party he’ll have them shuttled home in a taxi or send them to a hotel room for the night.

“If they’re at our party, we’re responsible for them,” says Olajide, the founder and CEO of Dallas software maker Axxess. “We’ll take any steps to ensure their safety.”

That’s smart policy, according to human resource and legal experts. Small business owners need to be savvy about holiday parties. Festive affairs can turn ugly when people get drunk, especially if they behave inappropriately or are involved in an accident. Employees or guests who overdo it can create legal hassles for a company even if the party is in a restaurant or hotel.

Alcohol-related accidents and deaths rise during holiday periods, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And in many states a party host, including a business owner, can be forced to pay damages if someone drinks too much and is in an accident, says Andreas Satterfield, an employment law attorney with Jackson Lewis in Greenville, South Carolina.

Although accidents can be devastating, an owner probably has more of a chance for trouble from staffers or guests who become offensive when alcohol lowers their inhibitions and they get too free with what they say and where they put their hands. If someone makes unwanted sexual advances or racist, sexist or other discriminatory comments, an owner can be sued for harassment by other staffers, Satterfield says.

Planning for a safe party needs to start well before the first martini is poured. Employees should be reminded to act professionally in advance, and managers need to know they’re responsible for how staffers behave, Satterfield says. Owners can limit alcohol intake by charging for drinks or hiring professional bartenders who will cut someone off when they’ve had too many.

Inviting spouses and partners can help keep a lid on drinking, says Harley Storrings, an employment attorney with Arnstein & Lehr in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. If employees are younger and generally single, he suggests serving only beer and wine, removing the possibility of people getting drunk quickly on shots of hard liquor.

Even if there aren’t any legal problems, the fallout from bad behaviour can linger. If a tipsy person insults a colleague the resulting hard feelings may hurt relationships when everyone returns to the office.

Some more tips to avoid holiday party hassles:

—Don’t serve alcohol.

—Make staffers and guests pay for their drinks. People are likely to drink less when they have to pay.

—Shut the bar down after a specific time, like one or two hours.

—Give everyone a limited number of tickets for drinks to be presented to a bartender. Be sure their names are on the tickets, and require them to present an ID card to the bartender along with a ticket. That way, people won’t be able to give tickets to one another.


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