Holiday Office Parties Can Simply Be a Family Get-together, Free of Liability

Remember a time when saying “it’s the season to be jolly” was not tinged with skepticism? Even if the news tell us otherwise, the time to put aside all our differences and celebrate the tradition of joy and gift-giving is here. Whether you are new to office holiday parties in America or just curious how recent events will dictate how you behave, it’s also time to take a break from all the madness and enjoy the holidays.

Yes, current events loom like a dark shadow so for assignees who come from other shores and may be experiencing the office holiday parties in America for the very first time, it’s crucial to know what is acceptable behavior in a holiday office party.

A Global Mobility Manager and Human Resources personnel should have some tips in mind, even for the local hires who moved from different parts of the US and are now working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

One thing to remember is that, then and now, executive management, aka the company leaders, all want a year-end holiday party to be happy and joyous. This is when people can let their hair down and have a good time without breaking the rules. But recently, a few things have changed, and right now it behooves the party organizers to make their celebration liability-free.

The Weekly Standard gives us one huge sign of these better-to-be-safe-than-sorry times: based on a survey, only 48 percent of companies will serve alcohol during the annual celebrations, as opposed to last year’s 62 percent.

Other business heads are also concerned that their employees behave in ways that would not be misconstrued as offensive. Any perception of sexual harassment has to be avoided — and that goes for both men and women. In case you haven’t been keeping up with the news, many VIPs, especially in the entertainment industry, have been brought down and seen their careers and elevated positions suffer because someone accused them of sexual misconduct.

The HR people and the company lawyers are particularly careful of unwanted advances in office parties, because the entire company can be sued. Without being killjoys, year-end holiday parties should take care not to offend anyone or create an atmosphere where any kind of unwanted behavior can happen.

Here are a few tips that Global Mobility Managers can remember, in order to safeguard their assignees. They can also use these pointers in case they get invited to help organize the celebrations.

Minimize booze, not the fun

How about minimizing the booze? This way you can eliminate any kind of unsolicited kisses, hugs, or even sexual complements that might be taken as a come-on.

Cocktails are cool but too many drinks can remove inhibitions, and one spontaneous comment, gesture, or touch may lead to long-term repercussions. CBS News also reports that some companies, erring on the side of caution, have refused to hang mistletoes; a flirtation today could appear as sexual harassment tomorrow. And if an offended employee does sue, it can cost the company as much as hundreds of thousands in liabilities and expensive lawyers’ fees.

Second, to minimize the unruly behavior right, set the tone from the beginning by telling the staff in no uncertain terms what they should wear. As Rolling Out points out, this, after all, is still a corporate party where family, friends, and important business partners might be invited—and any attire that shows too much assets or skin should be discouraged. It goes without saying, “Dress smartly.”

Make it a family affair

Third, be clear as to who you are inviting, and why. The Miami Herald elaborates on how some companies have drawn the demarcation line — and have made their parties more fun and safe because of it. Some events are more family-friendly and start off in the afternoon with games and contests for the kids, and ends with an early dinner.

This is probably the best type of party for assignees; they can bring their own loved ones, or feel like they are part of another extended family in case their spouse and kids are back at home. Other companies that can afford it have a few smaller parties—the traditional cocktails with employees and business guests, and/or an informal brunch where the staff’s children can sit down with Santa while their parents do some catch-up with the dessert cary nearby.

Celebrate achievements or donate to a cause

Fourth, the year-end party can be a celebration of the company’s successes and achievements while encouraging everyone to bond together again as a team. Employees can also be given their due recognition. Beyond the celebration of success, the event can also be a subtle reminder to the staff that they do have a lot to be grateful for. It can then use that thought as a platform to encourage them to give to the less privileged. Some companies have actually canceled their office parties, with the support of the staff, to give the funds that would have been spent for the festivities to shelters, orphanages, and soup kitchens.

Change the theme

Fifth, changing the theme of the celebration can make the party inclusive and in fact acknowledge the greater need to respect diversity. Tech companies in Northern California embrace and espouse this value.

This is the kind of atmosphere that your assignee will appreciate and lower his reservations when he or she joins the merry-making. Meanwhile, other employees of faith who prefer to celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah can easily put up their own distinct celebrations with their diverse traditions.

In light of recent events, it is understandable that many corporations would take the safe road in order not to find themselves at the end of a lawsuit. But that caution should not dampen the Christmas cheer. Smart planning and strictly enforced party policies should ensure that the annual caroling and merry-making would continue for a long time.