Help...traditional holiday party in jeopardy!
November 24, 2009 8:58 AM   Subscribe

What steps can company management take to minimize liability at an office holiday party where alcohol is served?

I work in an office of approximately 30 people with 6 being the "management" who have traditionally (last 30 years at least) paid for an office holiday party/dinner at an outside establishment and allowed employees and their SO to order a couple of alcoholic beverages with dinner. This year, 4 of the 6 management-level employees said they will not participate with the event nor sponsor it because they are concerned with getting sued by someone or their family if an employee drives home drunk and gets hurt or killed. A reasonable concern, but the remaining two of us are willing to still throw the party. With layoffs and everyone else doing more work to make up for the lost employees, my boss (and I) believe the effect on morale will be devastating if we didn't have the party. The crux of the concern is that there is 1-3 problem drinkers amongst staff and their invited spouses. Our plan is to:

1) Issue two "tickets" for drinks per person and deem them non-transferable.

2) Be the last one's to leave so we can assess drunkeness.

3) Do this at a restaurant with a liquor license with "professional" waiters and bartenders.

Despite these precautions, the 4 other senior-level folk still do not want to participate because of liability issues. Frankly, I believe they don't want to spend the money, but the alcohol issue is a real, but, convenient diversion.

You are not my lawyer.....but is there anything else I can do to further safeguard us, allay the fears of others, and hold our holiday party as it has been for decades? please feel free to tell me that my stubborn colleagues are in fact right and that my traditional party need be updated to 2009 legal standards if that's the case.
posted by teg4rvn to Law & Government (25 answers total)
Would it be weird to have the employees sign releases? Does your company have a go-to lawyer who would be able to weigh in on this issue?
posted by scarykarrey at 9:02 AM on November 24, 2009

Another option that I have seen used to allay concerns about drinking is to have the party on a weeknight when people will have to work the next day.
posted by TedW at 9:05 AM on November 24, 2009

Morale would be even lower if one of your problem drinkers were to get drunk, kill someone, and then the rest of your staff be laid off because your company is bankrupted by the costs of ensuing litigation.


If liability is such a large concern why not just eliminate one potential source of it by getting rid of booze?
posted by dfriedman at 9:06 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've seen "cab tickets" at weddings and other company parties. Basically you work out a deal with a cab company that allows anyone with a special ticket to put a cab ride on your tab for the night. You give the tickets to the bartender and if he sees that someone is getting tipsy he gives them a ticket and lets them know their ride home is already paid for.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 9:06 AM on November 24, 2009 [8 favorites]

Or maybe you could hold it over lunch with no alcohol paid for (and the expectation that people won't be boozing it up before heading back to the office). Cheaper lunch prices might help on the funds front.
posted by scarykarrey at 9:06 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

This might seem like an obvious thing, but why not just avoid serving alcohol?

Have the party without the alcohol and maybe give a bottle of wine as a gift.
posted by royalsong at 9:07 AM on November 24, 2009

The company that I worked for did the two-ticket thing but they also worked with the hotel where the party was held. The got the hotel to reserve a block of rooms and make them available at very reasonable rates to those in the party. The drinkers knew who they were and reserved the rooms with the idea of spending the night instead of driving.
Just a thought. It is a sticky situation.
posted by Drasher at 9:08 AM on November 24, 2009

Back in the day when I was a manager, I occasionally took my entire team on a fun outing that tended to include a movie (it was a bunch of computer folk; we always picked the big summer special effects blockbuster), then dinner and drinks afterwards. (In hindsight, I'm embarrassed to realize how much this sounds like a generic date. Gulp.)

I always planned it thusly. I'd pay for the movie. I'd pay for dinner. I would even pay for cab rides to and from the restaurant. I (and by proxy, the company) would not buy alcohol for anyone. If they wanted to drink, that was great, and I would be right there downing drinks next to them. But their drinks were on their dime.
posted by browse at 9:10 AM on November 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

nthing sending employees home in company-paid cabs or shuttles. This is what the company I work for does.
posted by bunnycup at 9:13 AM on November 24, 2009

We have happy hours quite regularly. We give everyone cab business cards, pay for cab rides, and make it no big deal to go get the cars the next day, if someone does take the cab home. We do everything we can to give people the opportunity to celebrate/have a good time, safely. It's not that hard.

My guess? There's something else going on that is causing this liability issue to be such a big deal to the other four - if it wasn't liquor, it would be something else. Do they want to celebrate with the staff or not?
posted by pomegranate at 9:20 AM on November 24, 2009

Aside from all that, make sure that there is a plentiful variety of food available. We have a major holiday party each year, and the worst one was when they had two thirty-foot bars and, like, four small tables of food. The cheese table was okay, but fruit and vegetable chunks won't sop up alcohol very well, and of the measly selection of hot hors d'oeuvres, there was maybe one that was vegetarian-friendly.

I think everyone needed cabs after that one.
posted by Madamina at 9:29 AM on November 24, 2009

I think you should go ahead and have the dinner party at a restaurant, buy everyone dinner, but not buy their alcohol. Just make a simple statement about liability, and make it clear that everyone will have to pay for their own drinking.

And emphasize drinking responsibly.

posted by General Tonic at 9:32 AM on November 24, 2009

Nthing just paying for dinner, not drinks. Besides limiting liability and cost, it keeps the non-drinkers (and designated drivers) from feeling like they've been shafted. You don't need to discourage drinking, but just don't have the company support it by paying for it.
posted by cgg at 9:54 AM on November 24, 2009

You guys are absolutely right. Employees will be upset if this is canceled, and they won't buy the liability thing as an excuse, especially with recent layoffs. Throwing the party without paying for booze will also go over extremely poorly if it has been your tradition to buy the drinks in the past. Your plan is more than reasonable, especially with "professionals" doing the serving. Provide cabs or shuttles, and you're golden.

I agree with pomegranate: something else is going on here and your colleagues have grabbed onto the liability issue as a convenient excuse. You guys need to address this before it further hurts your employees.
posted by zachlipton at 9:54 AM on November 24, 2009

I would have the cabs option, and also have you considered holding the party at a hotel, negotiating a special rate for anyone who wants to spend the night, and then putting out an email or invitation that suggests the overnight stay as an alternative to driving home that evening?

My spouse's company does this, with the two ticket drink thing, and it goes over well. We also do it as a casino night, where everyone is issued chips and they play casino games with the chips and then the "winners" have their names thrown in for prize drawings. Lots of fun, and gives you something to do other than just drinking to pass the time.
posted by misha at 10:20 AM on November 24, 2009

I wouldn't be so quick to think that the other 4 are trying to get out of paying. I've been in this exact situation before and have pushed back hard due to liability concerns. Why should I lose my house because John Doe can't control himself at a company event.

You likely have a few options as outlined above. Additionally, you may also be able to purchase cheap liability insurance like they sell for weddings and the events.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 10:30 AM on November 24, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses so far.

The party will be held during the week, so next day is work...check!

Taxi idea is great. Do you line up a cab company in advance? tell those who take a cab to pay out-of-pocket and get reimbursed?

I might actually bring a video cam to memorialize the videotape a welcoming speech by me indicating cabs will be available and they'll be paid for. Responsible drinking will be encouraged including mentioning the two-drink maximum.

Indeed, a dry party would be the simplest. Not paying for drinks would not be an option as the restaurant does not have a bar and having individual drink tabs, with food paid for would be complicated not to mention super-tacky.

We ran this by our lawyer who said there is no way to get risk to ZERO (people could always sue). His advice was not to hold party at one of our personal residences and provide the alcohol ourselves.
posted by teg4rvn at 10:31 AM on November 24, 2009

Another thing to do in order to avoid people skipping out while loaded to drive home is to offer a goodnight "party bag" with some small, inexpensive gifts in it. Tell them that if they need to leave early to come see you so you can give them their goody bag. This gives you an additional opportunity to judge their level of inebriation and if necessary request that they take a cab home.

Good luck either way...sounds like a real fun place to work for what with the behavior of the rest of the management team and all ;P
posted by Elminster24 at 10:54 AM on November 24, 2009

Um, isn't making a speech where you record yourself harping on the two-drink minimum also super tacky? That would not be a good way to keep my morale up, if I worked for your company.

Have a dry party, preferably catered at a location where alcohol is not available, and don't make a big deal out of it.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:59 AM on November 24, 2009

(make that two-drink maximum)
posted by slow graffiti at 11:02 AM on November 24, 2009

It does not have to be tacky slow graffiti. When explaining the tickets just say "there is a two drink maximum with these non-transferable tickets."

Then have the HR person acts as the "bad guy" (hey, its part of their job) reminding everybody that this IS a company party and that company policies still apply in regards to conduct.
posted by Elminster24 at 11:16 AM on November 24, 2009

yep, don't pay for the alcohol, buy a great dinner for them...the liability is on their plate, not yours.
posted by HuronBob at 5:41 PM on November 24, 2009

What happened at last year's party to make this suddenly an issue? Mitigating whatever that was might help.

But otherwise, the cab thing was always a highly encouraged option at alcohol-inclusive parties at my last job. If it's not an issue of balking at the cost, consider offering a paid cab in both directions (so people don't have to figure out how to get their cars back the next day).
posted by jacquilynne at 8:15 PM on November 24, 2009

Taxi idea is great. Do you line up a cab company in advance? tell those who take a cab to pay out-of-pocket and get reimbursed?

I think they called the cab company in advance and gave them a credit card number. Then all cab rides that were paid for with tickets plus gratuity were charged to the card the next day. I'd just call a local cab company, explain what you want to do and work something out. It's probably a little different everywhere but it's a common enough service that they should know what you're talking about.
posted by Thin Lizzy at 8:38 PM on November 24, 2009

Response by poster: @jacquilynne

What happened last year was two employees and their spouses started drinking a little heavy. They were newer employees and over the years our two drink maximum rule (we actually issued drink tickets) was relaxed because no one was a "drinker". These new employees were game changers. Couple that with the fact that those of us in management are older and decrepit and like to go home early. This left behind the power drinkers with no *supervision*

There are some money/status issues at play. Some things the objectors said lead me to believe that they don't want to spend the money and/or think that our support staff doesn't deserve to be treated to anything. Perspective: the total bill last year was <>
I looked into Event Insurance. We can get 1 million dollars of coverage for $160.
posted by teg4rvn at 7:35 AM on November 25, 2009

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