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Get Your Office Party Started . . . Without Starting a Lawsuit: Six Last-Minute Tips

Date: December 6 2012

by Philippe Weiss, Seyfarth Shaw LLP

1. Limit Liquor-fueled Liability.  Consider no drinks, charging for drinks, imposing a maximum number of drinks, or holding an afternoon event. (Any combination of these steps also dramatically decreases the risk of personal injury or workplace violence at your soiree.)

2. Seek Out the Spouses.  Many companies include spouses for common sense reasons. They can temper the worst troublemakers and HR needs all the help it can get in monitoring for any potential behavioral breaches.  (Whether or not spouses come, ban the mistletoe as well as party games that involve revealing personal secrets, or require body contortions/physical contact or any sort of disrobing. In fact, party games in general pose all sorts of unknown risks.)

3. Prime the Top People.  Ensure that your executives "know the risks to them."  Dozens of upper level managers and corporate leaders lost their jobs over holiday party misconduct.  An executive briefing that sufficiently "scares the C-suite" and ensures that they set the example is well worth the time and money.

4. Discipline the Days After.  Follow-up and investigate any allegations of party-related misconduct, even minor infractions, just as you would if the incident occurred during the “normal” 9-5 workday.  Remember, your company party is a company event. (Always use an appropriate, thorough and effective HR-driven investigation process and watch for possible retaliation against those who had the courage to complain or assist in the fact-finding.)

5. Redistribute the Rules.  Conduct-related rules and policies or plain-talk reminders should be given to everyone before the event. If possible, the messages should come from the top, after a preview/vetting by HR or your compliance team.

6. Educate Effectively.  Confirm that you have conducted comprehensive, high impact conduct  and harassment-prevention training within the last few months. (One way to ensure that your training meets muster is to check that it has been reviewed, evaluated and cited for its impact in the context of actual federal consent decrees.) If you have not deployed such training recently, plan to do so in 2013.  The best forward-looking defense is a commitment to train and to do it right.

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