Nan DeMars
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Party Lite

Lampshade-on-the-head office parties are yesterday's news. Today's gatherings are simply an extension of the workplace.

Dear Nan,
Lucky me! My job description was just expanded to include two major, annual all-company events: the summer picnic and holiday party. I'm excited about these new responsibilities (I love parties.), but I've also heard of past events where some unprofessional behavior occurred. I want to plan two splashy events (My budget is unlimited.), but also avoid any such criticism or circumstances or resulting lawsuits. I know the rules have changed a lot today from the lampshade-on-the head office parties of yesteryear. Can you and your readers give me some suggestions on how their similar events are now being hosted, plus some professional guidelines on how to both plan and attend such an event?

Congratulations on your approach. Your concept of hosting a professional event may spare your coworkers a lot of grief. It may also save your company the cost of lawsuits filed by the victims of “party fun” and the expense of recruiting new hires to replace those who quit in disgust or embarrassment.

The company’s liability for any activity that can be construed as company-sponsored has the potential to be explosive and expensive. Just as you did not see mistletoe at your last holiday party, you will not see beer kegs at this summer’s picnic. The human resources people (and their lawyers) have Grinch’ed both. And, with good reason. “It’s too dangerous,” they all say, meaning the former may cause you to kiss people you should not be kissing and the latter may cause you to misbehave even worse. The results of either misbehaviors may lead to an expensive harassment lawsuit.

Today, the anything-goes company party has evolved into just another business function. Your company is liable for employee safety even when the function is “off campus.” There are newly created dress codes, codes of conduct, expected outcomes, and new rules of engagement. If you express your lust, romantic, or true feelings about your coworkers or your boss, you might find yourself sheepishly apologizing the next day, avoiding certain people, or even resigning.

In short, job stress extends to job social events as well. Here are some tips for planning and attending your company’s future events.

Before you begin planning, rethink the concept of the event itself. Should you even host one? A lot of companies today are eliminating these events altogether. With the ever-increasing pressures on employees’ personal and professional lives, many employees may prefer to skip the entire thing. Consider the fact that your employees, instead, might jump at a check for $100 apiece to take their families out for a private “appreciation outing.” Or, they might be delighted to have a donation made in their name to a charity of their choice. The results of an employee survey posing this question may surprise you.

If you do decide to move ahead with party plans, “plan, plan, plan,” advises C.S., a respondent to this column who wishes to remain anonymous. “If you are new to the party-giving game and have a flexible budget, get some support from a professional (e.g., party planner, special events coordinator). Follow closely the details of your arrangements and gather notes and experience for your next soiree.”

Planning Pointers

Keep in mind these guidelines as you begin planning:
  • Develop and distribute a dress code and code of conduct for your event. Employees appreciate up-front expectations so they do not, for example, arrive over (or under) dressed.
  • If possible, serve no alcohol. If you do serve alcohol, replace an open bar with a cash bar instead. Limiting two drink tickets per person is another deterrent to over consumption. Hire a professional bartender who knows how to measure a drink and refuse service to an inebriated employee.
  • Call it a “social hour” not a “cocktail hour,” and be sensitive to non-drinkers by providing plenty of nonalcoholic beverages. Stop serving an hour before the official end of the event. Offer free taxi service for any one who wants (or needs) it.
  • Change the “party” to an “event.” A company-sponsored holiday or summer concert, theater outing, or family afternoon party with entertainment shifts focus from the negative to the positive. A block of seats at an event (e.g., amusement park, sporting event, dinner theatre) is usually a safe bet—as is a professionally organized theme party.
  • Encourage everyone to bring a guest. Office parties that exclude spouses and friends can be a nest of potential behavior problems. If the event is appropriate for children, encourage employees to bring their families.
  • Skip the dancing. Some people do not like (or know how) to dance, some would feel obligated to dance with others (the boss, for example), and some will have no partner to dance with and feel left out.

Attendance Advice

Keep these ideas in mind from an attendee perspective:
  • Foremost, keep in mind that a company party is an extension of the office. Your behavior will be observed, measured, and talked about the next day.
  • This is not the perfect time to “clear the air” with your boss or coworkers. I know of one person who had a few too many margaritas at a company party and chose that time to tell the boss what he really thought of him. Needless to say, his employment lasted about two more weeks.
  • Dress appropriately. Save the sexy look for a party with your friends.
  • Don’t drink, or at least watch your consumption. And watch your date’s or spouse’s behavior as well. Loose lips do sink careers (and fast). I know a woman who exceeded her wine limit and spoke in detail to another guest about a sensitive company lawsuit. Alcohol-free, she would have known better—especially because the guest turned out to be a newspaper reporter whose story ran on page one the next day, full of her attributed comments.
  • Mix well. There are always employees who are new, shy, or alone and not good mixers. They will forever remember and appreciate your making them feel at home and comfortable. Your kind efforts will be noted by others, too, and you may meet someone new and interesting.

“It is possible to have a good time at a company party without any lampshade-on-the-head antics,” points out Carol J. Rhodes CPS of Houston. So, remember to have fun, but not too much fun. And also remember, you want to wake up in the morning with your job intact.

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A past international president of IAAP, Nan DeMars CPS is an internationally recognized authority and seminar leader on office ethics. She is president of Executary Services in Minneapolis, MN, and author of You Want Me to do What? When, Where, and How to Draw the Line at Work (Simon & Schuster).

Contact Nan for more information about executary consulting services or seminars