HR Must Manage Merriment at Holiday Parties

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By Genevieve Douglas

Nov. 16 — Holiday parties give employers an opportunity to thank workers, boost morale and potentially attract new talent, but human resources departments need to have action plans to manage the merriment.

The 2016 holiday season will see an increase in the number of companies planning to host holiday parties and that reflects the country’s current economic status, Andrew Challenger, executive vice president of HR consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 15. Profits have surged the past quarter and companies have a little extra cash, he said.

In the firm’s annual survey of 100 HR executives, 76 percent indicated they would hold a holiday party, up from 69 percent in 2015. Companies are fighting to retain and attract the best talent, Challenger said, and a big piece of that is company culture. “Companies are spending more than ever on creating an environment where people want to work,” and holiday parties “are a big component of that” by increasing camaraderie among employees and overall positivity for the company, he said.

For HR, however, holiday parties can cause more than one type of headache. Employers are ultimately still responsible for any injuries, harassment or other dangers that can occur, Challenger said. HR should be proactive and communicate with employees about their behavioral expectations ahead of the party, he said. When it comes to incidents that occur during the party, HR will need to be “extremely responsive” to any complaints, Challenger said.

It All Starts With a Cocktail

Twenty-one percent of the companies surveyed by Challenger, Gray & Christmas indicated they are budgeting more for their holiday parties than in previous years. “More money may mean a more formal party,” which will definitely mean more alcohol, Nancy Delogu, a shareholder in the Washington offices of Littler Mendelson, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 16.

The most common problem to arise from a company party occurs when employees have a drink or two, “let their hair down” and do things to violate the company civility clause, she said. HR needs to clearly communicate with employees about expectations, which can range from “if you drink too much there will be a problem” to “make arrangements for a safe ride home,” Delogu said.

HR departments in states that have legalized recreational marijuana may also want to have a plan in place, Delogu said. A company party with alcohol may lead employees to try and push the envelope, and HR should be clear about what is allowed ahead of time, she said.

Delogu recommended that in light of the potential legal minefields a party offers, companies may want to consider other forms of holiday merriment through helping local communities and giving back.

Additional Considerations for HR

All HR departments should circulate a memo to employees ahead of the party, reminding them of the company’s policies on sexual and other forms of harassment, social media conduct and standards, Robert Nobile, a partner specializing in labor and employment law with the New York office of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 16. Essentially, the memo should highlight policies that pertain to “appropriate behavior and conversely inappropriate behavior,” he said.

Dress code could be another potential minefield, Nobile said, as a party atmosphere may cause employees to forget they’re still with co-workers and supervisors. “You don’t want folks dressing provocatively,” he said.

HR should also determine whether to impose a limit on the number of drinks employees are allowed to consume, such as through a ticket system, or who should be “deputized” to monitor the conduct of employees and intervene in the event of an issue, Nobile said. Companies can also offer employees a car service to ensure they get home safely, he said.

Addressing issues at the moment of controversy is one effective way to head off HR issues later, Nobile said. “There can be significant liability if” HR departments “don’t manage these events properly,” so it’s best to make sure all bases are covered, he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at tharris@bna.com

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