Tips for Employers About Alcohol at Company Events

Does Alcohol Drinking Mix Safely With Work Events?

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Do you provide alcohol: beer, wine, or spirits, for employees to drink at work-related events? If so, you’ve probably spent time thinking about whether this is a good practice. You want your employees to enjoy their work-related events and parties, but you also want to keep your employees safe.

Be Responsible

You need to minimize the legal liability of your organization yet not let legal worries dictate your relationship with your employees.

The "Wall Street Journal" cited a survey that found 38 percent of adults called had attended holiday parties at which alcohol was not served. More business events serve alcohol, however, with the alcohol provided by the business.

According to an SHRM survey, because of the improving economic climate nationally, more employers are holding office parties and more of them are serving alcohol. Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. "annual look at holiday office shindigs found that 80 percent of companies are planning to host holiday parties this year. Of that group, more than 21 percent are budgeting more for their events than in recent years, according to the survey of about 100 HR executives representing a variety of industries."

But, a holiday party is not the only event where an employee may face the question of deciding whether to drink or not at business events; employers plan all sorts of events that serve alcohol. The bottom line is making the decision about what and how much before arriving at the party. 

Tips for Employers about Providing Alcohol

Whether your event is a company milestone or birthday, an employee's retirement party, or a holiday event, use these tips to plan an alcohol safe event.

  • Talk about your company culture with employees emphasizing that drinking to excess is unacceptable during company events. Include alcohol usage guidance in your company code of conduct.
  • It is never okay for employees and applicants to drink alcohol during a job interview. Drinking at lunch job interviews should also be discouraged. You need to assess the applicant's fit with your organization without the influence of alcohol. And, if you're considering drinking with a client or customer, drink only if the client is drinking, and the recommended limit in a client or customer meeting is one glass of wine or a beer.
  • Always serve food, such as appetizers, from the start of the event so employees are not drinking on an empty stomach. Heavy appetizers minimize the effects of alcohol consumption.
  • Offer a variety of interesting, non-alcoholic beverages, to remove the emphasis from alcohol.
  • Never make drinking, or eating, for that matter, the main focus of any event. Always make entertainment, speeches, presentations, company logo items to purchase with points earned, games, dancing and/or activities for employees to participate in, the main focus of any company team building events.
  • Consider serving just beer and wine, and no liquor. Avoid serving drinks such as fruit punch that limit an employee’s ability to assess how much alcohol they are drinking.
  • Limit the number of drinks the company provides by using drink tickets or another informal method of tracking the amount of alcohol served. If you want to limit alcohol consumption, consider stamping an employee’s hand in exchange for each drink; you will want to limit the number of stamps an employee can receive.
  • Limit the number of hours that the bar is open. Close the bar during dinner and at a reasonable time to signal the drawing to a close and ending of the event. You might also consider holding the event directly after work so employees party from 5 p.m. - 9 p.m. for example.
  • Use trained bartenders to serve alcohol; never allow employees to serve coworkers or themselves. Never provide a help-yourself beverage bar that includes alcohol.
  • Make sure your bartenders are clear that they are not to serve alcohol to any person who appears to be inebriated. They are also not allowed to serve alcohol to any person who appears to be under the legal drinking age. Bartenders must card these employees just as if they were attempting to order booze in a local tavern. Serving alcohol to minors (often interns) is the most significant liability for employers who serve alcohol at work events.
  • Pay for the event, the food, non-alcoholic drinks, and entertainment, but provide a cash bar for employees. When employees have to purchase their own drinks, they drink less.
  • Nix alcohol except for beer and wine at company events that include children. For example, one company stopped serving liquor at work events that included families when several irresponsible employees started drinking shots in front of other employees' children. This was the last straw.
  • Provide a late night snack buffet before employees hit the road to end a company event. It doesn’t have to be elaborate: tacos, sloppy joes, hot dogs, popcorn, cold cuts, cheese and crackers, coffee and soft drinks provide a focus for employees other than alcoholic beverages.
  • Recruit your managers and event planning committee members, in advance, to keep their eyes open for employees who may be overindulging. Offer the employee a ride home, call a cab, or make certain that a designated non-drinking driver takes the wheel. (HR employees often leave events early so as to not inhibit employee fun so they may not be your best event policing employees.)
  • Pay for cabs to sit outside your event in case an employee is advised or decides that he or she cannot drive safely. Or, schedule the event at a location that offers easy access to public transportation.
  • Take a look at your company insurances to determine whether you have the appropriate coverage that allows you to serve alcohol at company events. According to SHRM, "John Keller, director of risk management and claims at Gulf Shore Insurance in Naples, Fla., said that many general liability policies cover host liquor liability. And if they don’t, and the company doesn’t regularly serve alcohol, the coverage is usually inexpensive to purchase separately. If caterers are working at the event, he said, it’s a good idea to ask them to give the company additional insured status so that the caterer’s policy will help protect against lawsuits."

    Additional Considerations

    You may also want to consider asking employees to review and sign a document that provides company alcoholic beverage guidelines and that informs employees they are liable for their behavior at company-sponsored events.

    You are encouraged to make the document clear that employees can expect punishment for over-imbibing or poor interpersonal behavior up to and including employment termination. You can do this as employees RSVP for the work event.

    Alcohol can be a festive addition to a company event, but employee guidelines, company culture and customs, appropriate planning, and observation at the event will ensure that employees live to work another day. At company events, as in your workplace, employee safety is your paramount concern.