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Why You Should Keep A Lid On It At Office Holiday Parties

By Savannah Cox | December 11, 2015 3:14pm
 Holiday parties are fun, but they have potential to turn into a legal minefield if you're not careful.
Holiday parties are fun, but they have potential to turn into a legal minefield if you're not careful.
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A night of seasonal celebration at a company holiday party led to months of embarrassment for one employee who, after sampling the flavored martini bar for several hours, passed out on a couch and was hauled out at the behest of the company CEO, event planner Michelle Bachman told DNAinfo New York.

"This girl was fresh out of college. It was one of those holiday party horror stories you hear about the new employee who drinks too much and makes a fool out of themselves. That behavior doesn't do anyone any favors," Bachman said. 

Being carried out of a party while comatose might be one of the more unfortunate ways to make yourself known at the workplace. Here are some tips on how to enjoy holiday parties without entering a legal or social minefield:

1. Keep social media use at a minimum.

"Employers are entitled to legally review Facebook photos," employee attorney Steven Sack said. "So it's really stupid for anyone to post revealing pictures showing drinking and cavorting on the Internet."

If you must let other social media users know that you're at a holiday work party, Sack recommends not posting much beyond a photo of you and your colleagues seated at a table, as anything you share is fair game for hiring and firing procedures.

Likewise, Bachman suggests disabling the photo tagging feature on Facebook before you head out for the evening.

"It can really burn people when they're involuntarily tagged in something," Bachman said. You might be able to roll out of bed the next morning and untag yourself, but "that embarrassing photo is permanent."

2. Open up, but not too much.

Bachman recommends using the event as a time to get to know colleagues you might not otherwise interact with, but to leave the dark comedy to Louis C.K.

"A person I know ended up in a conversation circle with the CEO and was extremely drunk," Bachman said. "She ended up telling a very off-color joke. Thankfully the CEO had a sense of humor, but that could have gone one of two ways."

3. Remember that office parties are not off-hours parties.

Employees and employers often make the mistake of assuming that "anything that happens at a party is not legally recognizable because it's off hours," Sack said.

That's not exactly true, though. Since the party "is sanctioned and paid for by the company...everything that happens there is actionable," Sack said. In other words, "you can't separate business from social," he added.

4. Drink early and with food.

Sack recounted the story of a client who lost his job following accusations of sexual harassment after a holiday party. Sack's client got inebriated at the event, which gave way to some unprofessional conduct and a very expensive lawyer fee. 

While drinking may be an inevitability, the attorney recommends going about it intelligently.

People should serve food before liquor, Sack says, and limit alcohol intake to two drinks max — a decision that is good for both party attendees and hosts, he said.

"There are laws in most states where if you give people more drinks and they get injured, you're liable," Sack said. "The same thing applies to companies."

5. Practice common sense.

An evening of drinking with your colleagues can be and often is fun, but a holiday party isn't grounds to throw all caution to the wind, Bachman says.

"A holiday party is one night," Bachman said. "You have to work with these people for hundreds of days."

Party-throwing employers should exercise similar discretion, Sack says.

"Exposure to sexual harassment lawsuits is always greater as a result of these office parties," Sack said. "The amount of money you pay to hire an attorney to defend you even if you're not liable is huge."

Ultimately, Sack says that if people understand a holiday party for what it actually is — business — they'll be OK.

"It's all business," Sack said. "It's always business even though it's 'non-official' business."