Work holiday parties took a dip when the economy went sour, but they're starting to pick up again. With that, employers are being warned about the dangers of having fun if the party isn't handled properly.

The goal is to host a party that results in holiday cheer, not legal trouble.

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One fact employers may not be aware of is that the same rules and policies apply whether a worker is standing at a copy machine in the office, or standing at a bar in the restaurant that's hosting the holiday gathering.

Employers and employees would be wise to review the company's policies on violence, harassment and retaliation, according to Kathleen Caminiti with the New Jersey office of labor and employment law firm Fisher & Phillips. Also, employers should be considered "on duty" during party hours; they're in the best position to stop a problem before it starts.

"Employers might consider limiting alcohol. People let loose when they've had one too many," Caminiti said. "You see more instances of sexual harassment, somebody telling a racist joke they would never tell, or a barroom brawl among co-workers."

Alcohol can be limited in a number of ways:

  • Serving only beer and wine
  • Issuing tickets for a certain number of drinks
  • Having the bar open for only the first half of the party

"I think it's important to remember that 'I was drunk' is not a defense to a sexual harassment lawsuit," Caminiti noted.

Inviting spouses also tends to calm the crowd, as well as other common sense measures - don't hang mistletoe or risque decorations.

"Remember, this is an office party, and there should be some level of decorum," Caminiti said. "You can have fun without swinging from the chandeliers."

Even if all the above steps are followed, problems can still arise. Employers shouldn't avoid any complaints, Caminiti said, and they should investigate promptly. No one wants to enter January with the remnants of a holiday party gone bad.