The Corporate Survival Guide to Holiday Parties

by Jeffrey A. James

The holiday season is just around the corner, and organizations throughout Washington are once again preparing to celebrate the holidays with their employees. Many organizations are privy to holiday party legends—some good, some bad, and some that will live forever on Facebook. Whether your company-sponsored event is at the office or at an outside location, the company may be liable for the behavior of its employees. If alcohol is part of your company’s holiday celebration, you could be at risk for more than just a hangover.

Company-sponsored celebrations that include alcohol can pose liability risks for employers if intoxicated employees get into a car and subsequently cause injury to persons or property. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the annual employer cost of motor vehicle crashes concerning employees under the influence of alcohol exceeds $9 billion. Similarly, persons under the influence can say and do things that can cross the line into unwelcome harassment. Therefore, just as you take steps to ensure that your employees have a good time at the party, you should also take steps to ensure that they don’t drive under the influence of alcohol or engage in other alcohol-induced conduct that has lasting consequences.

The following tips can help you reduce risks at company holiday parties:

1. Change The Focus Of The Party

Consider re-engineering your holiday party from a traditional food and beverage bash into an event that focuses on honoring employees and promoting good will. Some possibilities include caroling, a holiday-themed scavenger hunt, or a holiday meal “cook-off” at a local cooking school. Merely changing the time of the party to a lunch event can change the focus because employees are less likely to over-imbibe if they must return to work afterwards. If your firm throws the traditional party, be sure that your planning includes plenty of entertainment and activities so that drinking is not the main focus of the event. If it fits your budget, invite spouses and families to help keep an eye on your employees and get them home safely.

2. Set A Tone Of Moderation

Before any holiday party, you should set a tone of moderation. Let your employees know that you expect them to act professionally at the party and drink responsibly. In particular, managers and supervisors should be encouraged to curb their own consumption of alcohol. Remind all employees to plan alternative transportation home if they plan to drink alcohol. This can be expressed at a company meeting prior to the celebration or, even better, through a written reminder beforehand. You may even want to re-circulate company policies addressing appropriate workplace conduct and remind employees the same behavioral standards apply at holiday parties.

3. Plan To “Taper Off” Alcoholic Beverages

As the party progresses, taper off the amount of alcohol served so employees are not sent out into the night reeling from the effects of alcohol. To this end, it may also help to hire a professional bartender, and instruct them not to serve someone who appears intoxicated. Here are some other suggestions to limit alcohol use:

  • Provide drink coupons to reduce intake
  • Limit cocktail time, e.g., to an hour at the beginning of the party
  • Serve food after the bar has closed
  • Provide several nonalcoholic drink options throughout the party
  • Schedule the party for lunchtime to curb the possibility of excessive drinking

4. Hold the Party Off Premises

Beware of onsite consumption of alcohol, including “prefunctioning.” WAC 296-800-11025 requires employers to “prohibit alcohol and narcotics from your workplace” and to “prohibit employees under the influence of alcohol or narcotics from the workplace.” Allowing employees to get a head start on alcohol consumption at work before the “official party” will defeat your efforts to maintain sobriety

5. Keep An Eye Out For The Intoxicated Employee

At the party, watch for intoxicated employees, refuse them service and take affirmative steps to keep them from driving home. Discuss the issue with persons serving alcohol and ask them to alert you if they have any concerns. Consider designating HR or other management personnel to refrain from drinking and maintain a watchful eye. It is also a good idea to have a free ride plan in place. For example, you might provide taxi vouchers in advance and at the party, designate drivers, or provide a shuttle service to ensure that intoxicated employees don’t get behind the wheel. Position someone near the exit to remind employees of their options and insist that employees get third-party transportation when appropriate.

6. Keep An Eye Out for Harassment

Between the celebratory mood and provision of alcohol, a holiday party gives employees the opportunity to let down their guard. Harassment complaints may arise where employees are the victims of unwanted advances or other harassing behavior. Examples of inappropriate behavior that could easily morph into a complaint include risqué “gag gifts” or a supervisor making a romantic proposition to a subordinate. Remind employees in advance that such conduct is as inappropriate at the holiday party as it is in the office. You might also reduce opportunities for physical contact, by avoiding slow-dancing (check in with your D.J. or bandleader) or mistletoe. If you learn of behavior that could constitute harassment, investigate the matter promptly (even if no complaint has been made) and issue discipline when appropriate.

7. Do Not Serve Under-Age Employees

Do not serve alcoholic beverages to employees who are under the legal age. If your party is catered or off site, instruct the caterer or facility to request identification from anyone who appears to be under age 21. Better still, card everyone who appears to be under 30.


Jeffrey A. James is a shareholder with Sebris Busto James in Bellevue, Washington. If you would like additional information on this topic, he can be reached at (425) 454-4233 or


This Employment Law Note is written to inform our clients and friends of developments in labor and employment relations law. It is not intended nor should it be used as a substitute for specific legal advice or opinions since legal counsel may be given only in response to inquiries regarding particular factual situations. For more information on this subject, please call Sebris Busto James at (425) 454-4233.