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Alcohol liability at office holiday party

10-Minute Guide to Alcohol Liability at Your Office Party

Posted December 11, 2019 By Jared Shelly

What kind of holiday party will your company host this year? Will it be a boozy affair featuring powerful cocktails, a packed dance floor, and a party atmosphere?

Or will it be a tempered conference room potluck with no alcohol, brutally surface-level conversations, and attendees who are back at their desks 45 minutes later?

It’s likely that your company is planning something in the middle. You probably don’t want a booze fest but you want to show your employees a good time. And that’s natural, especially in today’s work climate. Alcohol at corporate events is becoming more and more expected in an era where the startup culture has helped to make alcohol at work functions far more common.

Currently, around half of all workplaces offer alcohol at their holiday party and less than half (47%) regulate the amount of booze that attendees can consume, according to research from Alcohol.org. Meanwhile 20% of people binge drink at those parties, which the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines as drinking an amount that brings your blood alcohol level to 0.08% or above.

“Alcohol changes people’s perceptions. They interact differently with one another and there are inherent risks associated with that,” said Keith Markel, partner and co-chair of the Labor and Employment Department at Morrison Cohen in New York. “If someone acts inappropriately, an employer can be held responsible for that conduct because they created the environment.”

The inherent risks aren’t hard to comprehend. Sharon from human resources drives home drunk and gets injured in a car accident. Tom from marketing sexually harasses the new intern. Steve from accounting begins physically fighting with another coworker after arguing about politics. Such risks have led to 13% fewer companies offering alcohol at holiday parties in 2017, according to a study by Challenger, Gray and Christmas. 

If you’re set on serving alcohol, an obvious question arises: How can you keep employees safe—and limit liability? We’ve got you covered. Follow our 10-minute guide to alcohol liability at corporate events:

Understand what could go wrong

Even during a holiday party, an employer is obligated to create a safe work environment. When people drink, their inhibitions are lowered, and bad situations can arise. Here are some examples of what could go wrong:

  • Sickend employees 
  • Inappropriate behavior or conversations
  • Sexual harassment
  • Fighting or arguing 
  • Drunk driving 
  • Employees feeling pressure to drink
  • Coworkers getting intimate with one another
  • Stumbling, falling, or injuries
  • Objects broken
  • Underage workers drinking

Preparing for party time

There are plenty of things you can do before the party even begins, such as:

  • Provide safe transportation home. Ridesharing credits, taxis, or transit passes can help ensure that people get home safely.
  • Find an offsite venue. Hosting the party outside the office reduces liability.
  • Serve beer and wine, not liquor. Leaving the hard stuff off the menu can keep things calmer.
  • Encourage “work” conduct. Remind employees that you expect the same standards of conduct at the party as you would in the workplace. 
  • Make attendance voluntary. If someone wants to skip, let them.
  • Hire professional bartenders. They know the signs that someone has had enough and can flag them. This also helps prevent over pouring.
  • Provide plenty of non-alcoholic drink options. Soda and juice are great but feel free to get more creative. Offer something fun like a sparkling apple cider, ginger beer, and non-alcoholic beer. 

Guarding against over-indulgence

  • Don’t let employees self serve. If employees can pour their own drinks they’re far more likely to pour with a heavy hand and over-indulge. “In that kind of environment,” said Markel, “it’s really tough to monitor if someone has gone too far and is inebriated and potentially in a situation to do harm to themselves or cross the line with others.”
  • Give out drink tickets. This limits employees to only a certain number of drinks.
  • End at a reasonable hour. If a group of employees want to take the party to a local tavern, let them—but the after party is not your company’s responsibility.   
  • Limit when alcohol is served. Consider removing the pre-dinner cocktail hour or not serving alcohol during speeches. Such small changes can make a big impact. 
  • Cut off alcohol before the party ends. This strategy can help your attendees sober up before they go home. It’s worked for years at sporting events.
  • Serve some hearty food. Everyone’s made the mistake of drinking on an empty stomach. Make sure there is plenty of food on hand so people can fill their stomachs and not accidentally over-indulge.

Preventing sexual harassment

Alcohol could increase the chances of sexual harassment—and as an employer you must guard against creating an unsafe environment. Here are a few practical ways to do so at your holiday party:

  • No mistletoe. This one should seem obvious. There’s no reason to make employees feel pressured to kiss.
  • Encourage people to intervene if they see inappropriate behavior. Empower people to step in if they believe someone is being pressured against their will.
  • Remind workers that “hooking up” is not allowed. Workers need to keep their behavior professional.
  • Consider hiring professional security. A professional security guard can keep an eye on secluded areas to keep people safe, and also step in to remove a problem attendee from the scene.

Following these steps can mitigate risk and help company leaders and party planners relax during the experience. 

“No one is saying ‘don’t have fun.’ No one is saying ‘don’t dance.’ No one is saying ‘don’t have a band or a DJ,’ ” said Markel. “Employers need to communicate that we had a good year, accomplished goals, and want to celebrate with one other. We just need to do it in a responsible way, respect each other, and not cross the line. That’s basically the language in every beer commercial.”


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