The 5 New Rules of Company Holiday Parties

Holiday parties have the potential to invite a host of bad behaviors that could lead to drama and liability issues

With social movements addressing sexual harassment, well known as #MeToo, there is a heightened need for employers to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Holiday parties have the potential to invite a host of bad employee behaviors that could lead to drama and liability issues that may linger long after the party ends. Holiday parties are a great way to celebrate the year’s accomplishments, foster relationship building among coworkers and boost team morale in a non-work environment. Along with these benefits, employers must be aware of the potential problems that can stem from inappropriate behavior and mitigate potential problems ahead of time.

Here are the five new rules to plan a party so everyone enjoys the occasion in a safe and fun way.


Before the party, discuss obligations with employees to ensure everyone understands what type of behavior is tolerated. This could be done via email, but even more effective is engaging employees in conversation where they may ask questions and air concerns, ideas and feedback. Though this may be an uncomfortable conversation to start, asking for insights about how problems may be avoided can go a long way toward getting buy-in and strengthening workplace culture in an authentic and sustainable way. Clarify that even though the party is after hours, professional decorum is more than encouraged, including: Dress code (i.e. provocative and revealing clothing may not be allowed); verbal language (i.e. cursing and catcalls are inappropriate); body language (i.e. be mindful of dance moves and avoid body contact with co-workers); respect for personal space (i.e. holiday hugs and arms around the shoulder may not be welcome). Explore how bystanders can address concerns they observe; perhaps by advising a designated person at the party who will intervene if necessary. Ask how they can hold themselves and each other accountable.


Be frank about alcohol and how it lowers inhibitions; inebriation is no excuse for bad behavior, and that consequences for violations may be severe. Ultimately employers are responsible for keeping employees safe in these situations, so it’s important to take steps to limit risks.

For example, consider holding the event at an off-site location with a liquor license and with licensed professionals to check IDs and cut off inebriated drinkers. Limit consumption by providing drink tickets and allowing a limited number of drinks per employee. Holding the event or celebration after hours and on a week day – instead of on the weekend – may help reduce employees’ temptation to over-indulge. Before the party, assign someone to be the ‘DO” (Designated Observer) who will monitor employee behavior and alcohol intake.  Clearly communicate alcohol limitations with employees before the party and your concern for everyone’s safety. Advise them to have a safe post-party transportation plan or even consider offering company-paid driver services.  


Taking measures to manage the mood and atmosphere of the party during the planning phase is an important way to prevent unwanted behaviors that may result in claims of harassment. For example, invite employees’ spouses or families to the party, avoid explicit music or entertainment and leave any inappropriate gifts at home. Meet with catering and serving staff and request their assistance in monitoring and reporting any behaviors of concern to a designated person, including making it clear that any employee (or guest of an employee) harassing them is not acceptable. Schedule the party to start early (ideally right after work) and end early; close the bar at least 45 minutes prior to the schedule end of the party.  


Everyone's experienced their fair share of white elephants and secret Santa's, so maybe this year try something different. Consider selecting a nonprofit or cause to support and encourage employees to contribute whatever they can. Or host a silent auction or raffle at the party, with proceeds going to an agreed upon charity. This can be a fun way to facilitate interaction between team members and involve them in the giving process. Corporate philanthropy is a great way to enhance morale and engagement, promote employee camaraderie and spread holiday cheer, all while giving back to the community.


Take steps to ensure that your event is inclusive and welcoming for all employees, regardless of differences in religion or ethnic background. To avoid making the party feel like work, don’t invite clients, require employee attendance, or have work-related discussions. It is a good culture-building practice to have a senior member of Leadership make a short statement to welcome, thank everyone for attending, and encourage employees to use the occasion to create new relationships, get to know a coworker better, and to celebrate a year of hard work.

When planning and executing a company holiday party, keep in mind the benefits for employees, the opportunity to build culture and prepare for any potential problems.

James McDonough is an HR research consultant for member engagement at Employers Council.

Categories: Human Resources