Alcohol at the Office Party? Not a Good Mix

Time flies, and the holiday season is here once again. That means it’s a time for overeating (“just one more Turtle…okay, six more…”), wondering why you complained so much about the heat during the summer as your frozen hands fumble for car keys, and of course, office parties.

Now, I won’t speak about the excess Turtles or the excess complaining (other than to say that less of both is probably a good idea), but the third item on that list – office parties – is important to discuss; especially when it comes to the sensitive issue of serving alcohol.

My advice is simple, really:  don’t do it.

The Arguments against Alcohol

Yes, there was a time (and you may have the photos to prove it) when pouring back a few glasses or bottles of “holiday cheer” at the office party was common. Well, those times are over – and that’s hardly a tragedy.

We all know that alcohol alters behaviour; and often not in as festive or charming a manner as the person who’s tossed back a few would like to believe. People who need to be able to work together and trust each other in order to perform in their jobs can have their relationship damaged – sometimes beyond repair – by alcohol-induced teasing, bullying, or other inappropriate actions. And even if such behaviour doesn’t lead to a serious workplace issues, formal complaints or even legal matters, the damage can still linger and harm individuals, teams and the entire organization long after the party comes to an end.

And if that wasn’t compelling enough, then consider the potential legal liability. While the Supreme Court declined unanimously a few years ago to impose a general duty on social hosts to prevent guests from driving home while intoxicated, such a duty could arise if it’s determined that the host knew the guest was intending to drive in such a state. In other words, the boundary lines of where liability should lie, should the Courts assign it, are not clear-cut.

Both arguments – preventing unacceptable behaviour and protecting against legal liability – are compelling, and should be weighed against any perceived benefits of offering alcohol at any company event. Furthermore, I hope it goes without saying that employers should do everything they can to prevent what could be a serious, or even fatal, injury.

If Alcohol is a Must…

Still, some organizations will want to allow alcohol and accept the risks. To minimize those risks, take every precaution, including:

  1. Having a third party serve the alcohol.
  2. Holding a cash bar/limiting free drinks to one or two per person.
  3. Insist that employees plan for their ride home by declaring (in writing) that they are not drinking or have a designated driver (who will not drink at all)
  4. Provide alternative transportation or overnight accommodations.

The above is not an exhaustive list.  You need to plan for how to handle alcohol-related situations and safety measures should be customized to the event, organizational culture and employee demographic. In general, you need to communicate with, and provide options for, your employees. You need to be hyper vigilant during the event, keeping in mind that those assigned as ‘party watchdogs’ are likely not to enjoy the party as much as they might otherwise.

The Bottom Line

There are very good reasons to load up on soft drinks, club soda and sparkling grape juice instead of beer, wine and spirits at this year’s office party.  You might be surprised to learn that employees appreciate an alcohol-free event just as much — or more — than an event that allows for alcohol.

(You can always throw in a few extra boxes of Turtles for good measure…)

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