Don’t let office parties kill your buzz

An office party is a great opportunity to celebrate successes and bond. It is also a minefield of potential legal and other dangers.

I once advised a tech startup whose founder and CEO got drunk at a holiday party, assaulted a woman, and was fired a week later. This nearly bankrupted the company.

General counsel spend so much time worrying about all the potential risks to their business that they might miss a big one ahead of them, like the office party.

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Heads of legal departments should talk to their CEOs and heads of human resources about holiday planning well before the big party. Here are some things to think about that could protect your employees, the company and its leaders.

To party or not to party

In tough economic times like this, it’s tempting for businesses to “tighten their belts” and cancel social events in the name of saving money.

The absence of an “official” company event does not solve all your problems.

Take former Peloton CEO John Foley, for example. Foley threw a lavish “personal” vacation party at the Plaza Hotel in New York last year, hosting friends and Peloton instructors… after freezing hiring and banning company parties.

Foley later explained that the party was “not officially affiliated” with the company. This did little to appease the bubbly employees.

People look up to leaders, especially during downturns. If your business can’t afford a holiday party, it’s probably a good idea to keep your own holiday celebrations low-key.

Don’t even try to distinguish between “official” and “unofficial” events.

You are always at work when you are with someone from work. If the party gets out of control and inappropriate behavior occurs, it will impact the workplace, regardless of who paid for the food and drink.

watch alcohol

Alcohol and the workplace are a combustible combination. Shift the focus away from drinking.

Just say “no” to hard liquor and open bars that go on late into the night. Instead, make sure there are plenty of soft drinks and food available. If possible, target entertainment that aligns with your company’s mission.

At Airbnb, for example, we’ve made sure celebrations include a little booze and lots of food. We also invited “experienced” entertainers, including a magician and a musician, to entertain us.

Enter the Spirit

Consider hosting a company-wide holiday event focused on the spirit of the season. Ask teams to pick a day when they engage in activities that give back to the community they work in, such as organizing and wrapping gifts for those at a local nonprofit. Then, plan to meet up at the end for a few hours of food and drink.

Pay attention to your clues

Finally, set aside five minutes at your leadership team meetings to discuss how everyone will behave during holiday events. Remember that employees will look to leaders for appropriate behavior.

I made a fun short video parodying the “bad” holiday party, where hard liquor is the only thing on the menu and everyone plans to drink a lot. I played the straight guy who showed up in an ugly sweater and expected to do a cookie swap. This led to a constructive conversation about how to approach the holiday season. It was widely viewed across the company and received many favorable comments.

Silence is the enemy of integrity.

Don’t be afraid to speak candidly and generally about how you expect people to behave. Then be sure to practice what you preach.

Rob Chestnut is the former General Counsel and Chief Ethics Officer at Airbnb. He spent more than a decade as a Justice Department prosecutor and later oversaw US legal operations at eBay. The author of “Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution,” Rob is a consultant on legal and ethical issues.

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