From the December 1998 issue of Entrepreneur

A generation ago, a business's recipe for a successful holiday party was simple: Stock up on plenty of alcohol, pour drinks freely, and be quick to overlook employees' inebriated mishaps. Still sound like a good formula? Forget it--today's company parties are very different affairs. "There are new rules for hosting parties," says Joseph West, chairman of the Department of Hospitality Administration in the College of Business at Florida State University (FSU) in Tallahassee. "The big change is, there's a lot less emphasis on booze."

Prudishness didn't dictate this change--caution did. "Many companies have been held liable for actions of employees who became intoxicated at events sponsored by the business," says Michael Blickman, an attorney with Ice Miller Donadio & Ryan in Indianapolis.

If a drunken employee is involved in an automobile accident after a party, watch out: Lawsuits may fly at you from the victim and possibly even the employee, and damage awards can quickly climb to business-breaking levels. "This is a real risk," says Blickman, who adds that too much alcohol may also lead to claims of sexual harassment. "That can be an employer's worst nightmare," notes Blickman.


Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail rjmcgarvey@aol.com

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Does this mean today's parties have to be staid and straight-laced? Definitely not. "Company parties can still be lots of fun--if you plan properly," says West. "Better still, now the partygoers will be able to remember the party the next day."

Whereas once the purpose of company parties seemed to be to hold a drunken bash, today's goals are inspired more by the bottom line and a desire to contribute to a positive corporate culture. "With a well-planned party, you can expand trust among employees and improve their ability to communicate with one another," says Joel Whalen, an associate marketing professor at DePaul University in Chicago. "Today's business parties are about relationship-building."

You'll have to work harder than the hosts of yesteryear did, however. For starters, if you want the party to be successful, you've got to take off your boss mask. "You've got to minimize the `I'm the boss' cues you give employees," says Whalen. Fail to do that, and workers will respond in kind--they'll stay within the parameters of their workplace personalities and will neither relax nor interact with co-workers in new ways.

Even so, discarding that boss mask can be very hard for some business owners. How can you meet this challenge? Whalen gives a simple strategy: "At the party, circulate and talk to people; you don't want to stand in a corner waiting for employees to come up to you. And you'll probably need to take the lead in conversations, coaxing employees to talk freely."

Another rule to remember: "Plan the party for the guests, not for yourself," says Whalen. "Just because you like golf doesn't mean your country club is the best venue for a company party. Think about what your employees like--what would be a special event for them? Knowing that is crucial to holding a party that succeeds."

Party Plans

The good news is that as businesses have shifted the focus away from alcohol, parties have gotten more interesting. "We're seeing more creative company parties," says Patsy Rhymes, owner of Houston-based Snap2, a staff training and event coordination business. "The big trend is that parties are getting more personal. Fewer businesses are holding events in hotels, for instance. More are holding parties in the home of an executive because that adds a personal, intimate touch."

Another big party focus today is food. "A major trend is to hold sit-down dinners," says Rhymes. "Even with the companies that want the informality of a buffet, the food has become much more important."

Won't a sit-down dinner minimize socializing, with workers tending to hang with their buddies? Of course, but the antidote is assigned seating--with the chart made up by you so you can place people strategically.

Another option: "We've held dinners where [the guests] played musical chairs between courses," says Rhymes. "All the men change seats or all the women do, and that way employees keep meeting new dinner partners."

How about pulling out your chef's hat? "An event can be very special if the boss does the cooking," says Rhymes. Don't despair if you're not on speaking terms with your stove, however. "A popular alternative is to have food cooked at the party by a caterer. Many chefs will even give an impromptu cooking class that can be a lot of fun."

Organized fun, in fact, is a popular party theme. "More clients [today] want games at their parties," says Rhymes, who adds that charades and scavenger hunts are high on the list. "Games let employees see supervisors in a different light, and they also help make everybody feel comfortable."

Booze News

Party plans in hand, you still have a touchy issue to resolve--should you serve some alcohol or hold a "dry" party? Some experts strongly argue for a new Prohibition. "Sometimes I feel like Ebeneezer Scrooge, but what I tell companies is that employer-sponsored parties and alcohol don't mix," says attorney Blickman.

Other experts argue that there are benefits in serving alcohol--a drink or two will loosen up nervous employees--but moderation needs to be aggressively enforced. "At our parties, we don't let people get intoxicated," says FSU's West, whose institution provides a function room for businesses that want to host off-site parties. "We've trained our managers to quietly tell individuals who have had too much to drink that we're concerned about their safety and for that reason, we're cutting them off."

Does this trigger hostile reactions? "That's rare," says West, who notes that usually a person is embarrassed when his or her inebriation is pointed out. "Most are very cooperative with us."

Another tactic for moderating alcohol consumption: "We suggest to our clients that they avoid hard liquor and serve only beer and wine," says Rhymes. "We also advise setting a party time limit of three hours. That's a big help."

There's another precaution worth taking. Before the party, circulate a written policy that intoxication at employer-sponsored events is prohibited. "This helps set the right tone," says Blickman. He also advises that if your precautions are to no avail and some employees get drunk, have a plan for dealing with it. One good idea is to put the employees in cabs and send them home.

At the party's end, how do you know if the event has been successful? "If employees have developed stronger human relations with each other, the party has been a real success," says Whalen. And it just might prove to be lots of fun, too.

Contact Sources

Ice Miller Donadio & Ryan, (317) 236-2298, http://www.imdr.com

Snap2, c/o Short Communications, (713) 669-8411