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Steps employers can take to prevent the office holiday party from becoming an HR nightmare

Office christmas party
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Office holiday party season is at hand, and employers want to show their workers appreciation for a job well done throughout the year.

Still, many companies dread the prospect of drunken shenanigans that sometimes take place at year-end festivities — some of which could land them in court if things go badly.

Recently, CNBC asked several experts what employers can do to throw a great and memorable employee party, but still guard the company against liability from bad behavior.


Send a pre-party memo

Step one should be to make sure everyone knows exactly what the rules are. Mark F. Kluger, a founding partner at the law firm Kluger Healey, said that a memo sent out in advance is the best way to make expectations clear.

"Let everyone know in writing that the holiday party is not a free for all, that it is a work event and that you expect them to behave politely," he said.

"Just say, 'Keep the alcohol in check, keep your hands to yourself, be aware and respectful of the different religions that your co-workers celebrate,' and end with 'Let's just go out there and have some good, clean fun,'" he added.

Keep a lid on the liquor

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Many office party horror stories begin with full liquor bottles — and end with empty ones. With that in mind, a survey of C-level executives by executive search firm Battalia Winston showed that of the 89 percent of companies intending to have a holiday party this year, 65 percent of them said alcohol would be served.

Philippe Weiss, managing director of legal compliance and consulting company Seyfarth Shaw at Work, said that companies should set limits if they plan to serve alcohol at their holiday party. One way to do this is to set a maximum number of alcoholic drinks per employee using tickets.

Career counselor and executive coach Roy Cohen added that it's not just the number of adult beverages that needs to be kept in check. Anyone who has had different types of drinks in the same night is aware of how they can affect a body collectively.

"Limit the range of alcoholic beverages served, so employees are less likely to mix drinks," Cohen said.


Keep your hands to yourself

A scene from "The Wolf of Wall Street" starring Leonardo DiCaprio
Source: Thewolfofwallstreet.com
A scene from "The Wolf of Wall Street" starring Leonardo DiCaprio

Kluger said that employers who are serious about curbing inappropriate behavior should also appoint "hall monitors" to watch over things. He recommended using human resources personnel for this task, as they're the best qualified to call out risky behavior when they see it.

It's not just "handsy" employees they'll need to be aware of, but ones using inappropriate language as well.

"Look for and find the guy who thinks he is the funniest one in the room, and likely the loudest," he said. "The material is probably not that funny, especially if everyone [is] sober, and the cost per laugh is high."


Bring the ball and chain?

U.S. Vice president-elect Mike Pence arrives at Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016.
John Taggart | Bloomberg | Getty Images
U.S. Vice president-elect Mike Pence arrives at Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016.

As a cost-cutting measure, some companies may limit party attendance to just employees. It may contain costs, but it's also shortsighted, experts say. The presence of spouses at the holiday party can keep your employees on their best behavior — like Vice president-elect Mike Pence, who reportedly never goes anywhere alcohol is served without his wife.

"Many companies invite spouses for common-sense reasons, as they can act as the 'better half' that tempers the worst instincts and inclinations of their mates," said Seyfarth Shaw's Weiss.


Leave the driving to a car service

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No matter what kind of strongly worded memo you've sent out to your employees, someone will likely overindulge in alcohol. Under no circumstances should that person be allowed to stagger to their car, claiming they're "fine to drive." For this reason, employers should offer the use of a taxi or car service to get employees home when they shouldn't drive themselves.

Especially if there's an open bar, "the employer will want to set up an account with Uber or Lyft, whereby any person attending their party will have a way of getting home safely," said event planner Greg Jenkins of Bravo Productions.


Use protection

While no employer who plans a holiday party necessarily expects it to become a drunken revelry, unfortunate things do happen. For that reason, some experts recommend employers buy insurance for the event.

"Businesses can purchase Special Event Insurance, which covers a variety of costs associated with parties," said Maxime Rieman, director of product marketing for insurance company CoverWallet.

Insurance "can also cover liability if your company is found responsible for property damage or a third-party injury caused during your event," Rieman said. "Additionally, companies serving alcohol on-premises can purchase liquor liability insurance or host liability insurance … which offers protection in the case that a drunken employee causes damage to property or others."