I completely understand. It’s bad enough that you have to attend the office holiday party. It’s totally unfair to expect you to sympathize for the poor devils who have to plan the office holiday party.
But think about it. In this litigious age, the idea of your unbalanced co-workers turned loose in a drunken, hip-hop orgy of bitterness and recrimination is enough to leave any lawyer with visions of sugarplum jury awards dancing in their heads.
This is why all managers must read “Planning Office Holiday Parties Without Lawsuits,” a Jonathan A. Siegel article on businessweek.com. (Since you are the kind of employee who doesn’t consider an office party a success if doesn’t engender at least one lawsuit, Mr. Siegel’s suggestions for a sane and sensible office party may discourage you. But don’t stop reading or stop attending. The better you understand management techniques to create a safe, fun holiday celebration, the easier it will be for you to turn the party into a disaster zone.)
First off, you don’t want to call the Christmas party a Christmas party. Not everyone in the office celebrates Christmas. As Mr. Siegel correctly points out, some celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa “and other important holidays that fall at this time of the year.” The author doesn’t spell out the specific alternative holidays, but I think we know what they are — the beloved “Dewey Decimal System Day,” (Dec.10) and the highly spiritual, “International Answer the Phone Like Buddy the Elf Day” (Dec. 18).
You also have to decide whether to limit the party to employees only, or to allow family members, spouses and partners. It might seem like a nice gesture to be inclusive, but it can put pressure on employees who are juggling marriages and affairs with people in and out of the office. If you do decide to open the guest list, make sure that you provide name badges to clear up any possible confusion. For example, you would want one badge to read, “Hello, I’m Ann. Bob’s Wife.” And another badge to read, “Hello, I’m April, Bob’s Girlfriend.” And another to read, “Hi, I’m Rebecca, Bob’s Divorce Lawyer.”
Perhaps the most critical decision the office party planner faces is whether or not to serve alcohol. As Mr. Siegel suggests, “the safest approach from a legal perspective is to forget about cocktails, beer or wine.” No question, this policy will absolutely wipe out any fears of a lawsuit because absolutely nobody will come to the party.
If you do decide to serve alcohol, you can limit your liability by hiring a bartender. You can also serve really cheap liquor, though this may not deter the determined drinker. As everyone knows, nothing is better than vintage champagne, except for free rotgut.
The cautious host will also set a limit on the number of drinks an individual should have. Naturally, different people will have different capacities, so I suggest that managers take out each of their direct reports and see how many drinks it takes to get them hammered.
Once an employee’s tolerance level has been ascertained, write that number on their forehead as they come in the door. “Take off your hat, Ms. 17 Jell-O shots,” the bartender can say. “You’ve just reached your limit.”
(Siegel does have one brilliant idea for limiting drinking. Make employees pay for their drinks. That will work! You’ve got co-workers who haven’t paid for a drink in years.)
Management should also be cautious about making attendance mandatory. Staffers may have other important obligations, such as rotating their tires. Also, if you demand attendance, employees could demand to be paid for the time they spend drinking your liquor and eating your food. And these are some of the few jobs that they probably do really well.
Finally, holiday parties can also be an occasion for personal relations to get a little too personal. Citing a study by the Caron Treatment Center, Mr. Siegel notes that at alcohol-friendly office parties, 26 percent of the attendees observed that “a colleague or a supervisor had shared inappropriate details about himself or herself or a co-worker.” This is an alarming statistic, especially if you’re one of the 74 percent who never got a whiff of these shocking admissions.
So, if you have to give, or go, to an office holiday party, keep your mouth shut and your ears open. You could come away with a wonderful holiday gift — juicy gossip tidbits that you could use to blackmail your supervisors all through the next year.
Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at email@example.com.