You can take steps to prevent office-party problems

After last February's Linda Hunt case, you should be even more concerned about ensuring there are no alcohol-related incidents
||Last Updated: 04/09/2003

Remember the Linda Hunt case earlier this year, in which an employee left an office party, drove to a bar, kept drinking and subsequently had an accident – and successfully sued the company for liability?

This holiday season HR professionals will be especially vigilant for out-of-hand behaviour on the part of their employees.

Fortunately, “preventive measures (can) keep parties on an even keel -- fun and friendly, but without excessive drinking and the bad behavior that often results,” says John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of international outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Drinking is often a focal point of company holiday parties. A recent survey by found that 57 per cent of employees admit to getting drunk at their company party.

A 1998 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) mirrors the report. SHRM said 25 per cent of HR professionals surveyed said that excessive drinking had either been observed or reported at their holiday parties.

Embarrassing behavior is only part of the problem. Employers could find themselves open to lawsuits stemming from accidents, altercations, and incidents of sexual harassment, said Challenger.

And as we all learned from the Linda Hunt case, “the employer may be liable even if the event is off company premises.”

Guidelines for a safer office party

Toronto-based employment lawyer Soma Ray offers these tips to consider while the party is still in the planning stages:

•Stop serving alcohol a couple of hours before the party ends.

•Make sure the bartender stops serving alcohol to people who appear intoxicated.

•Draft language in a contract with the hotel that states that management will be informed of any employees who are cut off by the bartender.

•Talk to employees before the party and warn them that intoxicated employees will be put into taxi cabs, and that it would be preferable that they don’t drink to that point. It’s also crucial to remind them not to drink and drive.

Some additional suggestions:

•Limit the number of drinks attendees can have by distributing drink tickets.

•Provide wristbands or some other identification to minors as a means of restricting underage drinking. The wristbands could offer the wearer unlimited soft drinks (if those aren’t already free), or some other incentive like those fun, fancy alcohol-free cocktails.

•Provide paid taxi service, pass out taxi chits, or have employees volunteer as designated drivers.

•Collect car keys before the party and return them only to sober guests.

•Provide hotel rooms for those who cannot drive.

•Hire a caterer or professional bartender to serve drinks.

•Invite spouses, to encourage employees to be on their best behavior.

Read more about the Linda Hunt case. Click on the “related articles” links below.

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