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When Office Holiday Festivities Spell Fiasco

Think about some of the most difficult cultural challenges your company is currently dealing (or not dealing) with. Now consider some of the interpersonal conflict you are privy to (or enduring yourself). Maybe your frontline managers have little faith in the leadership capabilities of senior management; perhaps you spend a lot of time cleaning up messes created by an executive who is a bully. Or you've just wrapped a grueling project working with a team of colleagues who were content to allow you to do all the work, but eagerly stepped up to take all the credit--and you're simmering with resentment.

Any one of these scenarios is tough to cope with, but add the one-two punch of the frayed nerves that often accompany the holidays and excessive consumption of alcohol to the mix, and it's akin to pouring gasoline on a roaring bonfire. Beyond the awkwardness of being thrown together with folks with whom we might not ordinarily be keen to hang out, the workplace holiday party can become an incendiary mess, with things being blurted out that can't be unsaid and shenanigans taking place that can't be unseen (or, worse, posted to social media). HR professionals know that some of the scenarios mentioned in a recent NPR story on the ugly aftermath of workplace parties that have going disastrously off the rails ranging from incidents of sexual harassment to destruction of property resulting in demotions, firings, and even lawsuits are all part and parcel of the season. Minneapolis-based employment attorney Kate Bischoff told NPR that her practice is very busy this time of year dealing with the fallout of company parties gone mortifyingly wrong. One issue that employers should take into consideration when planning holiday parties is that depending on the circumstances, providing alcohol or paying for alcohol may mean that the company incurs some liability.

Bischoff recommends considering using a drink ticket system to both limit the flow of alcohol and remind employees that there are (or should) be limits to how much imbibing takes place. But, as another employment attorney who specializes in post-holiday party messes suggests, using common sense can't be mandated. "If people used common sense, I wouldn't have a job," says Jon Hyman, Cleveland-based employment attorney.

What can managers do? Consider having an informal pre-office party conversation with direct reports, which can be a valuable coaching opportunity. Talking openly and frankly about the ramifications of regrettable party behavior beyond an awkward next day at the office as well as discussing strategies to get through these sorts of social events unscathed can prove helpful. Remember that office parties are on the uptick now that the recession has ended, and some workers may be attending their first work-related after-hours event this holiday season. Talking ahead of time about what's acceptable and what isn't is a positive step toward strengthening your culture and helping employees navigate what can be an anxiety-producing event.