Office holiday parties cause hangovers and headaches for companies and employees.

Every year around this time employment lawyers start feeling anxious. No, it’s not the end of the year push or the rush to hit deadlines.  It’s the dreaded office holiday parties.

Our friends on the other side of the bar who represent employers collectively shudder at the thought of the Monday-morning post-office-holiday-party confessions they are sure to receive.  During these calls, our friends grit their teeth, head in hands, while they listen to the managers they’ve trained on sexual harassment and discrimination laws admit that they *may* have, just a little bit, violated some of those law.

And those of us who represent employees ready ourselves for the inevitable calls in which we will field questions like, “is flashing my staff a fireable offense even if other people were doing it?” or “was I wrong to bring a sex toy as a white elephant gift?”  Unfortunately, both of these examples are based on actual calls we received.

We’ve also received calls about Yuletide fist fights, suspicions of being ruffied and, an errant (but somewhat intoxicated) Evangelical Christian admonishing a Muslim employee for even coming to the “Christmas party” in the first place.  (To the employer’s credit the party was a non-denominational holiday party.)

On the more egregious side, we receive at least one call every year from someone who feels she or he was inappropriately touched by an intoxicated co-worker or boss and, on the flipside, we get also get calls from potential clients who suspect they may have done some inappropriate touching.

The debauchery that happens at office parties has become comedic fodder–so much so that there’s an even movie this year parodying the ridiculousness of it all.  (Our staff plans to see it).

At the risk of sounding like the Scrooge, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for those hosting and attending these parties.  These gentle reminders are based entirely on cases we have handled or quandaries from which we have tried to untangle clients.

  • MAKE THE PARTY OPTIONAL:  Some employees may feel uncomfortable in large groups and some may just be sick of seeing one another.  Others, however, may be recovering from drug or alcohol addiction which you may or may not be aware of.  Making an office holiday party mandatory is like inviting them to dive off the wagon.  There’s tons of articles this time of year about how to handle these parties when you are recovering from an addiction.  Making it clear to employees that attendance is truly optional is a nice way to avoid unnecessary stress or contributing to derailing someone’s recovery.


  • MODERATE DRINKING:  For the love of God, you don’t have to drink all the alcohol that is offered.  Employees and managers need to act like adults; not fraternity boys.  I have yet to hear a story of an sober employee flashing her co-workers or a teetotaling boss groping an intern.  Moderating alcohol intake would eliminate at least 95% of holiday party debacles.


  • SAFETY FIRST:  Given that the prior suggestion will almost certainly be ignored by managers and employees alike companies should, at least, make sure their employees have a safe place to spend the night or a safe way to get  home.  Just because employees are off the clock does not mean they are off a company’s liability (or worker’s compensation insurance for that matter). Serving alcohol at parties and then allowing employees who drank too much to drive home can subject a company to enormous liability.  It’s much cheaper to just pay for hotel rooms, cabs, or ubers.


  • FAMILY FIRST:  Employers should Invite spouses and significant others and employees should bring them. For employers, inviting these people to the party not only shows your employees that you care about their families but it also provides an extra layer of protection from the juvenile behavior that adults can unleash when relieved from their familial burdens.  It’s like an extra check and balance (i.e. babysitter) in place.


  • COMMUNICATE EXPECATIONS:  Employers and managers: Let your staff know your expectations beforehand.  Explain to them that you want them to have a good time and that alcohol will be served but impress upon them that they are stilll acting as representatives of the company at this party and must conduct themselves accordingly.  Make sure they know there could be repercussions for failing to do so.  There is nothing wrong with disciplining an employee for off-duty conduct if that conduct occurs at an employer-sponsored event.


  • GO INCOGNITO:  even considering my suggestion above, I would not recommend advertising your company on office holiday party night.  No company shirts, no company flare, nothing.  If we’re being honest, no one is going to be doing anything that you would want to be a public representation of your company.    It’s Best to just look like a large group of friends out together.


  • DON’T OVERSHARE:  Employees, do NOT take this as the opportunity to tell your boss how you feel about him (good or bad).  Also, now is not the time to share with your co-workers or your managers past childhood trauma or insecurities.  NO heartfelt confessions, whatsoever.  Unless your co-workers and/or boss are drinking to the point of blacking out they are going to remember on Monday what you said and, unfortunately, you will probably remember telling them.  Many a professional relationship has been irreparably damaged by holiday party oversharing.  Don’t do it.

Above is the best advice I can offer.  Good luck and Happy Holidays!