In the coming weeks, workplaces will be hosting celebrations at work and after hours with co-workers.

There are several ways your organization can make sure it isn’t the next #MeToo headline and foster a respectful workplace for all employees. Employers should encourage employees to enjoy this time of the year and provide opportunities for co-workers to eat, drink and be merry, but also set expectations for proper workplace conduct.

Holiday parties held at the office during work hours typically do not create a significant amount of risk, particularly if no alcohol is served.

Most complaints in these situations result from employees who feel compelled to participate when either they object to the holiday celebration or just don’t want to be around co-workers in an informal setting.

Workplace events such as holiday parties should be voluntary unless they are more akin to a working lunch where a speaker will be presenting.

In addition, holiday parties should not be tied to any religion.

After-hours holiday office parties present a unique opportunity to spend time with co-workers away from the office.

These parties also create legal employment and other risks due to the likelihood that people will be drinking and may wrongly assume that because they are away from work, the typical workplace expectations don’t apply.

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission representatives have referred to after-hours office events as the “extended workplace.” This is especially true where the organization is sponsoring or inviting employees to participate.

If an employer is sponsoring an after-hours holiday party away from the office, there are six ways to minimize risks.

First, remind all attendees ahead of time that your Code of Conduct and anti-harassment policies apply to the after-hours events.

Second, if serving alcohol, set limits. Provide two drink tickets per attendee, and assign a responsible person to distribute them.

This isn’t a fail-safe system because nondrinkers will sometimes give their tickets away to others, but in general it sets the expectation that the open bar doesn’t mean unlimited drinking.

Third, encourage employees to bring a guest.

Inviting guests allows employees to meet each other’s significant others/spouses and also will discourage workers from engaging in inappropriate comments, touching and other nonsense that causes #MeToo disasters.

Fourth, hire a bartender. Having someone who doesn’t work for the organization manage the alcohol will enable that person to observe if someone is overindulging.

Be sure to communicate with the bartender(s) that there is a two-drink limit.

Fifth, provide a lot of food and make sure to consider the unique dietary needs of staff, including gluten-free and vegetarian/vegan options.

Consider asking employees ahead of time if they have any other dietary needs. The more people focused on the food, the less likely they are to drink too much.

Finally, set a time limit to the party, such as from 6 to 9 p.m. or from 7 to 10 p.m. At the end of the party, close the bar.

Ideally, your office party isn’t the most rocking party that your employees attend this year, rather just an enjoyable opportunity to engage with co-workers away from work and celebrate this time of year.

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Karen Michael is an attorney with Richmond-based KarenMichael PLC. She can be reached at kmichael@karenmichaelconsulting.com.

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