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Pros and Cons of Serving Alcohol at Your Next Company Party

(Fall 2014) Plan early and consider the effects of serving alcohol to employees.

Are you on your company’s holiday party committee? (Or maybe you’re a committee of one?) If not, forward this to someone who is. If you are, let the planning begin.

We trust you’re taking care of the mundane things like when and where the party will be held, how much you’re willing to spend and who will be invited. But what about whether alcohol will be invited to the shindig? And what that will look like.

If employees will be drinking alcohol at your gathering – even if it will be held off company premises and/or employees have to purchase or bring their own – it’s important to have a frank and specific conversation with company decision-makers early in the planning process to decide how alcohol consumption will be handled. While it may be tempting to avoid this somewhat “touchy” subject matter or be met by resistance (a.k.a. “Buzzkill”), it’s just not responsible to handle the issue haphazardly.

Bottom line, if your company can be attached, in any way, to an employee’s use of alcohol that results in tragedy, you and the company could be held liable. Or you could be asked to spend money to defend yourself in court. Or you could be kept up at night wondering if something could have been done to prevent it. Thankfully, tragedies don’t happen often.  But this is what likely keeps people from addressing the issue head-on thinking “It can’t happen to me.”  But let’s be frank, it’s also not fun when people get drunk at company parties. Those who drink too much end up saying and doing stupid things they later regret, and those not drunk have to put up with the obnoxious behavior of those who are.

Many companies do it right – where alcohol is served at the party, but not considered the party. It may take some planning – especially if your company has a legacy of heavy drinking at gatherings – but decreased liability and expense and increased peace of mind and fun will be the pay-off.

So now’s the time, early in the planning process, to develop an alcohol plan for your party that will help PREVENT people from drinking too much and help DEFEND the company if someone does drink too much and causes harm.

Here are three simple to-dos to add to your list:

  1. Decide where alcohol “fits” at the party.
  2. Develop and document an alcohol plan.
  3. Communicate the plan to employees.

1.       Decide where alcohol “fits.”

As a guiding principle, alcohol should be the side dish at the party; not the main course. If you fear employees won’t come if you don’t serve alcohol, or keep it at a minimum, they’re coming for the wrong reasons. Ideally, you want employees to come because they enjoy the company, the food is special, the swag is stellar or there’ll be fun things to do.

Begin by determining the goal of your party. Is it to blow off a little steam? Thank employees for a year well done? Support a local cause? Show gratitude to employees’ family members who have put up with a lot of long hours? Give employees a chance to mingle? What you hope to accomplish with the party should determine what direction the party takes and where alcohol fits.

If it’s a family gathering and children will be invited, alcohol shouldn’t be. If you want to support a holiday charity, consider spending more on the cause instead of the keg. Serving wine or beer for an adult is appropriate, as is a champagne toast if the goal of the gathering is celebratory.

Another consideration is the budget. Make a conscious decision about how much you want to spend on alcohol – especially in relation to other expenses like food, entertainment or gifts. Do the calculations to figure what percentage of your budget will be for alcohol. (Set this aside because you’ll need it for to-do number two below.)

To further determine alcohol’s “fit” at your party, consider a theme for the party that will take the emphasis off the alcohol and put it onto something else. How about something quirky like a winter luau or employee game night? Maybe a western night at the (insert company name here) corral or something with an international flair? Working Partners® last holiday party was held at a venue where employees split into teams and were coached through the process of cooking a gourmet meal. If you’re not feeling creative, put the challenge out to employees to submit ideas and award a prize for the one that’s selected. Might as well get the hype started early!

2.       Develop and document your plan

Now that you’ve determined the fit, it’s time to get specific with the plan. Ask and answer these questions:

  • How much alcohol will you allow each guest to consume?
  • How will that amount be monitored and measured?
  • Who will serve the alcohol?
  • How will we ensure no minor is served or consumes alcohol?
  • Where in the party venue will the bar be situated?
  • Who on the team will be responsible for keeping an eye on signs of intoxication?
  • What time will we stop serving alcohol?
  • What interesting, non-alcoholic beverages will be served?
  • How will we transport an employee at the end of the party in the event he or she is showing signs of intoxication? And whose role will it be to confront the employee with this alternative ride?

Be sure to carefully document your answers to each question (including your budget calculations from above) and format it in a way that will not only serve as a guideline for next year’s event but also evidence in the event you need to buffer liability relating to the party. Remember, while the primary goal of this plan is to prevent alcohol-related ugliness from happening, you will need to be able to defend your decisions in the event it does.

3.       Communicate your plan to employees

Finally, your plan needs to be carefully and specifically communicated to employees, preferably in writing. No need to bore them with all the details, but they need to know alcohol will be served and what your expectations are about how much they can consume. Don’t forget to mention that minors will not be able to consume alcohol, even if accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Consider sending a fun and lighthearted invitation first, then “chasing” that invitation with a serious message about alcohol consumption. Be sure to include a copy of those communications for your documentation file described above.

So there you have it. Seem like a hassle or over-kill? Get over it. While alcohol can add a little sparkle to your holiday gathering, it can also tarnish personal and company relationships and reputations if handled inappropriately.

Got great party ideas to share? Let us know about them in the comments section below and we’ll pass them along!

DISCLAIMER: This publication is designed to provide accurate information regarding the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that those involved in the publication are not engaged in rendering legal counsel. If legal advice is required, the services of a competent professional should be sought.