VOICE OF SMALL BUSINESS: Alcohol and Mistletoe: A Dangerous Mix for small business holiday parties

By Dan Danner

December's holidays can be the "most wonderful time of year," but smart small-business employers will keep a tight rein on "mistletoeing and hearts that are glowing." Otherwise, they could find their carefully hung stockings jammed with nasty lawsuits and hefty legal bills.

There's a lot more to planning a successful holiday party than picking out the hors d'ouevres and tree trimmings, says National Federation of Independent Business Legal Center Executive Director Karen Harned.

"You'd better watch out for two things, especially alcohol and sexual harassment," Harned said. "While one fuels the other, both by themselves can result in serious legal problems for small firms."

Several states have passed laws requiring employers to exercise "reasonable care" to prevent injuries by intoxicated employees leaving company festivities. Although no employer would deliberately set out to create liability issues for his company, it's easy to get caught up in the moment and turn over key decisions to employees in the interest of maintaining morale.

But by lessening the role alcohol plays in the year-end company event, an employer can avoid situations that quickly turn into disasters. First, make sure the party is voluntary and be sure to remind workers about company policies that regulate conduct and substance abuse.

Professional bartenders are always the best servers of alcohol. They not only know how to mix and measure the requested concoctions, but more importantly, they'll follow instructions not to serve anyone who appears intoxicated. An easy way to limit free drinks is to distribute drink tickets. And be sure to serve heavy foods throughout the evening so employees aren't imbibing on empty stomachs.

Additional eyes are helpful as well. Owners should ask trusted managers and supervisors to mingle with the crowd frequently to observe who has over-indulged and is unable to drive home. Make sure those who do exceed their limits have alternate transportation to their homes. Providing taxis or designated drivers for them can spare companies not only the agony of expensive lawsuits, but also the loss of valuable employees.

Socializing, mistletoe and alcohol combined can create an environment that breeds sexual harassment claims. Small-business owners can be held liable for what happens at a holiday party. Harassment suits can result from voluntary events conducted outside the office and after normal work hours.

Harned says before the bash begins, owners should remind employees of their harassment policies and inform them that they have a duty to report any sexual harassment they experience or witness. Workers should understand that such parties are work-related activities where the rules for appropriate behavior apply.

Don't have an anti-harassment policy? Then don't let the party begin until you get one and have an attorney review it.


Dan Danner is president and CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business in Washington, D.C.

Published: Thu, Dec 13, 2012