As the holiday season rapidly approaches, the last thing a company wants is for its annual soiree to become the next face of the #MeToo movement. With the current climate, businesses are scrambling to determine how to avoid party pitfalls or whether they should even stage the shindig at all.

“The employers’ expectations of behavior should be spelled out and distributed to staff ahead of time,” said MaryLynne Christman, chief eventor at Collaborative Event Management.

Legal and human resources experts agree that setting firm guidelines is imperative when it comes to minimizing risk and accentuating the purpose of off-site corporate functions.

The #MeToo movement has been a significant factor in creating discussions about whether companies should just ax holiday parties altogether. The more #MeToo is talked about, the more real it becomes. Sober or drunk, by mistake or on purpose, experts say sexual harassment in the workforce is a matter that should be handled seriously and with extreme care. But the best way to handle it is to prevent it before it happens.

Party planning

In light of #MeToo, Robert Reder, managing partner of Blythe Grace, says there are three things employers should do to reduce the risk of liability from holiday parties:

1. Update your employee handbook to include zero tolerance policies for discrimination or harassment. “There are certain workplace offenses where an employer should proceed directly to termination after an investigation of the circumstances of the incident,” Reder says. “Discrimination and harassment are two of those circumstances.”

2. Employers should have an employment attorney or human resources specialist provide harassment training to all employees. “This training is certainly an investment by the company, but can prevent workplace misconduct,” Reder says.

3. Employers should designate an employee to refrain from consuming alcohol so that they may look for anyone who is intoxicated. “This employee can watch to ensure that employees are not getting out of hand, where misconduct can occur,” Reder says.

Human resources experts say it’s also imperative in today’s climate to take a hard look at the culture of your workplace. What is the atmosphere of the office like? How do your colleagues interact with one another? Would you consider your workplace professional or more lax? The success of the holiday office party mirrors how controlled the office is as well as the dynamic between associates.

To cancel or not?

Hosting regular training programs and seminars to clarify expected behavior is crucial in eliminating the “lack of knowledge” excuse at a holiday party. But proper employee behavior should be expected year-round. Experts say the rules should be both consistent and pertinent.

So, what happens if you are uncertain about the outcome of the party? What if you’re unsure about the level or amount or training you’ve done? Do you still try to stage an epic party, or do you minimize potential harm by vetoing it all together?

“Eliminating the parties or reward system tears down what I think would be the heart and soul of the company,” says Jacque Duhame, owner of Duhame Event Group. “If people are not able to be rewarded, it could ruin morale.”

According to a survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, plans to host an office party dropped roughly 5 percent from 2014 to 2017. Not surprisingly, the number of parties that served alcohol decreased from 62 percent to 49 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“If consumption is limited, it solves most problems,” said Neil Alexander, shareholder at Littler Mendelson.

Whether alcohol is part of the equation or not, eliminating parties to reduce risk also eliminates the opportunity for employees to prove they can act responsibly, strengthen internal relationships, bond as a team and speak informally with co-workers to improve relationships. Office celebrations are the perfect excuse to let loose and do those things.

The key, experts say is to make sure you don’t promote too much letting loose.

Cheers or no cheers?

Start with the minor details: Cut down the mistletoe and review the playlist. Decide whether you want to provide a dance floor or if you want to promote a function centered around mingling and networking. Don’t make the gathering mandatory, as that induces obligation, and make note of specific dress attire. Reward the designated drivers with Uber gift cards of minimal value and limit guests to a plus one.

Which brings us back to the riskiest party pitfall: Alcohol.

Alcohol is blamed for being the root of most potential liability problems, especially at professional functions. With a lack of limitations on alcohol intake, the lines between proper and improper conduct can easily become blurry.

“Consider limiting the amount of alcohol that can be consumed by any attendees at the event,” says William Richards, founding member of Baskin Richards.

Richards advises a ticketing system that limits the number of drinks a single attendee can consume. This kind of limiting system has been increasingly adopted by companies as a way of moderating the levels of drinking. Additionally, hiring a professional to take care of this part of the company’s business versus an internal employee is more reliable and appropriate when cutting people off.

“A professional event planner will have a trained staff, event insurance and will be able to keep an eye on the event,” Christman says. “Having a volunteer or staff member serve drinks who is not Title 4 Beverage Service trained leaves the door open for over serving and/or serving minors.”

Alcohol can even cause problems for employers after the party is over.

“Arizona employers who serve employees alcohol at parties and do not take reasonable steps to ensure they do not drink and drive may be liable for any damages that occur as a result of the intoxicated employee’s actions under Dram Shop laws,” Reder says.

The guest list

When it comes to a corporate holiday party, the optimistic figure of speech, “the more the merrier,” does not always apply, especially in the presence of alcohol. Even if you take the steps to instill ethical guidelines of behavior within staff members, you have to be cognizant of the fact that an employee’s guest may not abide by these agreements.

“Mixing such uninformed participants with alcohol creates the possibility of inappropriate sexual behavior instigated against employees or guests by non-employees,” Richards says.

The company needs to be mindful that allowing guests to attend the holiday office party brings uncertainty to the outcome of the gathering.  Furthermore, disclosing this risk to the employees themselves serves as a warning and statement of awareness.

“I would definitely make sure to set expectations and rules about how people should interact with each other, and remind them it’s not only the employee of the company but the spouse or significant other that can also be a harasser,” Duhame says.

For employees, be selective when deciding who to accompany you to your holiday office party. And employers need to disclose the concern about unfamiliar attendees. Create a setting with appropriate background music and a contained, visible room to eliminate hazardous scenarios from arising.

“Setting the tone as ‘we don’t tolerate sexual harassment’ can drastically reduce legal liability,” says Jamie Seeker, founder and principal consultant at Seeker Solution.