Tailgating at the Office

Joy C. Rosenquist

Think of a company Christmas party as tailgating.  The ball game stadium is the office and the party is in the parking lot.  Even though you’re partying in the parking lot, you’re still at the ballgame.  Our office behavior affects the company legally, both in and out of the office, even at a Christmas party.

The first problem? Calling it a Christmas party.  A lot of religious or ethnic connotations are associated with Christmas, as with Hanukah or Diwali, or any other religious holiday.  Your best bet is to steer clear of any religion at the office.  Let the local cities and courthouses deal with the protests of a “holiday tree” versus a “Christmas tree.”  We’re not here to make policy, we’re here to enjoy our coworkers in a time of winter celebration, at the end of a fabulous fiscal year, right?  Even if you insist on calling it a Christmas party, just steer clear of religion as a discussion topic at the office party.  Although it’s a great topic for your family’s dinner table, the truth of the matter is, coworkers get offended, embarrassed or angry, even if they don’t tell you.  Some employees may believe they cannot or should not defend themselves, especially where different ranks and seniority of coworkers involved in the discussion are at play.  Last note on the religion issue- it’s best to offer at least one vegetarian dish at your party for people belonging to religions that do not eat meat, such as Hinduism. In fact, serve a lot of food, to avoid disasters relating to my next topic.

Too much alcohol.  The second problem.  Again, think of your company party as occurring at your office.  If your employee gets too drunk and you let them drive home, causing an accident, you may be held liable.  If your employee goes home drunk and gets a DUI, they’re unable to drive to work for 4 months; so unless they live in walking distance, you now have a 4 month telecommuter.   Set up a cab system with a cab driver to be available at the office parking lot, where the employee can pay to be driven home.  Or if it’s a smaller office and you can afford it, hire one driver for the night (Unemployed college kid? Not anymore) to shuttle people home, if they drink too much.   Employers should also task one or two people as designated interveners, to be the one to notice those heading over the edge or nudge people in the right direction to get a cab – discreetly.

Third potential problem? Possible harassment issues.   And not just because someone is too touchy, though you have to pay particular attention to the touchy-types at holiday parties because they will usually be even more aggressive after alcohol, in a relaxed work environment.  Humor? Yes, we all love toasts, but when a toast or a joke turns into a ‘roast’ of an employee, you can guarantee that almost everyone but one employee is laughing.  If you’re going to roast someone, roast a ‘boss’ (versus a ‘rank and file’ employee), plan it well, pass it by HR and warn that person ahead of time!  Lastly, holiday parties inevitably bring up personal dating or marriage issues of your employees.  Your employees should be sensitive to spouses or the lack thereof, at the party.  Casually inquiring whether someone has a spouse at the party is one thing, but holding an inquisition about why someone is single may not be inappropriate.  You may also encounter some same sex couples for the first time at the office that you did not know existed.  Trust me that it is harder on that employee bringing their same sex partner, than it is on you, who may be somewhat surprised.  Roll with it, and be thankful that you are at an office where someone feels comfortable and respected enough to bring that person. 

Bottom line is – keep your office party fun, dignified, and safe.  You’ll appreciate it come Monday morning.