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10 ways to limit holiday party liquor liability

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The holiday season is upon us, and if you’re planning a company party or awards banquet, you might want to give some thought to your policy on alcohol.

Serving employees alcohol at company-sponsored parties and events can have serious and sometimes tragic consequences for your workers and your organization.

For example, if an employee drinks too much and gets into an accident on the way home, you could be held liable. Plus, sexual harassment complaints tend to increase when alcohol consumption goes up.

Here are some suggestions to help prevent alcohol-related problems—including sexual harassment and auto accidents—and limit your exposure to liability if you do decide to serve liquor:

  1. Don’t serve liquor. The simple solution to the problem is not to serve alcohol at all—though this may not be realistic.
  2. Limit consumption. You may be able to limit the amount people drink by having a cash bar or by providing tickets good for only two or three drinks. Also, stay away from sweet punches containing alcohol. These can make it difficult for people to tell how much alcohol they have consumed—until it’s too late.
  3. Close the bar early. One to two hours before the end of the event, stop serving alcohol. If possible, continue serving food even after the bar is closed.
  4. Have the party off-site. If the party takes place at a hotel or restaurant with a liquor license—and the facility’s employees serve the drinks—you’re less likely to be held responsible.
  5. Establish an alcohol policy. Institute a company policy to let your employees know that excessive drinking at company functions will not be tolerated. Also remind workers about the dangers of drinking and driving.
  6. Offer transportation. Make taxi vouchers available to provide the option of cab rides at company expense.
  7. Avoid company business. To help make the event a social affair, keep any discussion of business to a minimum and hold the party outside of regular business hours.
  8. Make company functions voluntary. It’s a good idea to make attendance at company parties where liquor is consumed entirely voluntary.
  9. Invite families. Inviting spouses and dates tends to make the event more of a social occasion rather than a business function.
  10. Don’t invite customers, clients, or business associates. Inviting the people your company does business with increases the likelihood that the event is an official company function.
  11. Watch for minors. The law can come down hard on you if you allow minors to drink alcohol. If a significant number of your employees are minors, or if you expect families to attend (e.g., the event is a company picnic), consider serving no alcohol at all.

Although it’s impossible to exercise absolute control over your employees, the key to avoiding liability, as well as keeping workers safe and out of legal trouble, is to do everything you can to prevent them from drinking too much and getting behind the wheel.