Look out, beware—its holiday party season!

According to a survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., about 88 percent of companies in the US had holiday parties last year. That percentage has been hovering around 90 percent every year since 2011, when only about 68 percent of companies had holiday parties. Barring a major economic crisis in the next few weeks, it is likely that about 90 percent of US companies will again have some type of holiday party this year.

For many companies, having an annual holiday party is part of the culture and tradition of the organization. Company holiday parties provide employees with an opportunity to socialize and celebrate together, and can certainly help boost morale and engender loyalty. At the same time, however, there are risks lurking. Depending on the type of party, and the part of the world you are having it in, there are different types of risks that can come into play.

Even though the percentage of US companies having holiday parties has been relatively high the last few years, many of those companies are spending far less money on those parties than they did prior to 2008. Some companies have saved money by switching from night-time parties with open bars to lunch or afternoon parties. Even if there is access to an open bar, it is less likely that employees will consume excessive amounts of alcohol at lunch or afternoon parties. Other companies that used to invite employee spouses and significant others to their parties now only invite the employees. Although inviting spouses and partners is certainly more expensive, surveys suggest that employees tend to be on "better behavior" when spouses attend. This makes a lot of sense when you consider that—according to a national survey that was conducted in 2013 by Public Policy Polling—nearly 25 percent of employees who make over US$100,000 per year say that holiday parties have led to "romantic connections." Still other companies have saved money and mitigated the risks associated with excessive alcohol consumption by eliminating the open bar or offering a limited number of alcoholic drinks per person.

We asked our partners in other parts of the world to give us a sense of what types of holiday parties their corporate clients are having. In Canada, most year-end holiday parties are still referred to as "Christmas Parties," as opposed to "Holiday Parties," and include spouses and significant others at an evening affair involving dinner. In many cases, a lunch party may also occur, which would not involve spouses. Although alcohol is served at the parties, as a result of social host liability issues, most companies now provide each guest with one free drink and free wine with dinner. Drink tickets need to be purchased for anything else. Some companies will subsidize the cost of the drink tickets but the trend is to move away from subsidization in order to attempt to reduce alcohol consumption and the risk of poor behavior and drunk driving. Most companies also offer free taxi chits to ensure people get home safely.

In Spain, most holiday parties this time of the year are held after a work day in December and are limited to the employees. Although there are many types of parties, a common approach is to have a dinner at a restaurant to be followed by a night of dancing and/or music at a disco or pub. Some companies pay the cover charge for the employees to get into the disco or pub, while others do not

In Poland, similar to Spain, most parties are held after a work day in December. At smaller companies, spouses are generally invited; at larger companies, they are not. If the party is organized in the evening, alcohol is served. Although many companies only have a dinner, a number of the larger companies also have a night of music and dancing.

Regardless of the size and location of your company, here are some steps your company can take to mitigate the risks created by holiday parties: (1) redistribute the company's anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies the week before the holiday party and remind employees that these policies apply to company-sponsored social events both inside and outside of the office, including the upcoming holiday party, (2) remind employees that any "after party" is not a company-sponsored event, (3) remind supervisors what to do if they learn of or witness any potential violation of the company's policies during the holiday party, (4) consider implementing a dress code that maintains a professional environment, (5) make sure professional bartenders are the only people serving alcoholic beverages and instruct them not to serve people who seem inebriated, (6) have plenty of non-alcoholic drink options and "real" food, (7) leave religion out of the party and just celebrate the holiday season, (8) make sure that the employees do not feel required or pressured to attend (requiring employees to attend could violate employment regulations or give rise to a claim for overtime pay) and (9) provide all guests with a safe way to get home.

From all of your friends at Dentons, we wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous holiday season!

Brian S. Cousin, Editor in Chief

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