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Company Holiday Party This Week? In the Era of #MeToo, Exercise ... Caution. The abhorrent conduct of a few does not mean that your company should cancel all celebrations and keep employees from socializing.

By Jay Starkman

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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The idealized vision of the ambitious startup -- fueled by passionate employees who work long hours, day in and day out, sacrificing salary for stock options -- is not far from the truth. That's why, for owners and managers, whether they're with startups or more established companies, the end of the year period we're now in is the traditional time to reward that tireless dedication.

Related: Is That Holiday Party Really Worth It?

We're talking, of course, about your annual holiday bash -- which you may have held already or be looking forward to some afternoon or evening this week. While the era of the over-the-top Wall Street or Silicon Valley mega-event is mostly past, companies still want to recognize their employpees with a unique and memorable experience that brings everyone together to unwind and celebrate. No work, all play.

That goal, of course, is a good one. But this particular year, in light of the continuing revelations of sexual misconduct in workplaces across the country -- former CBS CEO and alleged harasser Les Moonves, was just denied severance; did you hear? -- some companies are seriously re-evaluating the annual holiday party.

Today's era of heightened awareness

The fact is, the potential problems posed by hosting social events in the workplace are not new, but they are amplified in today's climate of heightened awareness. From the risk of lewd behavior by senior managers to potential underage drinking by young interns, it's no secret that company parties can result in HR complaints, lawsuits and brand-killing publicity. For employees, an embarrassing situation or bad behavior can spread quickly on social media and via text message, potentially ending careers and destroying reputations.

The staffing firm Robert Half International released the results of a survey that asked CFOs across the country to uncover some of the most embarrassing moments seen or heard at a company holiday party. The examples received ranged from bosses falling asleep under tables and throwing food ,to falling into a pool, to fighting. One manager even took inappropriate photos in a photo booth, while others used obscene language with subordinates.

These are extreme cases of misconduct, but they trigger legitimate concerns among employers. The abhorrent conduct of a few does not, however, mean that your company should cancel all celebrations and keep employees from socializing. It simply means that those business owners who outsourced or glossed over the party-planning details in the past should now play a more active and thoughtful role and establish and clearly communicate company policies and employee conduct guidelines.

Related: The Rules of Etiquette for Your Office Holiday Party

Here are some key considerations:

The ways in which you should have already prepared

Long before your party takes place, you should have ensured that your anti-harassment policy was, and is, current, and that employees understand that your policies regarding sexual harassment and retaliation are in full force during all company events.

Your company should have been conducting regular sexual harassment awareness training for employees, and part of that effort should have included an emphasis on conduct at work-related events. The training should have included detailed examples of what is and isn't considered legal and actionable sexual harassment.

According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), "The law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious. Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision." Anti-harassment training also should demonstrate that just because an action is legal doesn't mean it's always appropriate in a workplace setting. Supervisors and employees should learn how certain communication styles or language can be misinterpreted.

Sometimes it takes an anti-harassment training session for someone to have an "a-ha" moment. An example might be a friendly male supervisor who, after a role-playing exercise during training, decides to stop complimenting women on their attire -- not because it's illegal, but simply because he wants to avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable.

Planning ahead in the weeks just before the party

Next, as your holiday party date has become imminent, you should have determined ways to minimize potential problems. Consider including spouses or plus-ones at the holiday event since employees are more likely to refrain from inappropriate behavior if their significant other attends. Also choose the party time and wisely. According to a 2017 Holiday Survey Report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, more companies are moving toward workday events, and nearly one-third of those questioned said they were keeping events on company premises, compared to 28 percent in 2016.

It should be noted, however, that holding events during the workday can present other problems related to wage and hour claims by non-exempt employees, so it is preferable to hold events outside of work hours, and to ensure that attendance is always voluntary.

Finally, and critically, as part of your early planning, you needed to decide whether or not to serve alcohol. If you do choose to serve cocktails, hold the event at a restaurant or venue with a liquor license -- not a private home -- where drinks are served by professional bartenders who know how to respond to guests who overindulge. Also, set a maximum drink limit with coupons or the like, and have a variety of non-alcoholic drinks available. Don't skimp on the amount of food served when alcohol is also offered, and provide alternative transportation. Consider paying for your employees to take Uber or Lyft.

Some trends to note: According to the Challenger, Gray & Christmas Report, in 2017, fewer than half of the employers surveyed said they planned to serve alcohol, down from about 62 percent in 2016. In addition, 11 percent of employers did not plan to have a holiday party at all in 2017. This represented the highest percentage of companies without parties since 2010, when 24 percent did not host events.

Involving your management team

Just before the holiday party, consider involving a team of managers, along with your HR leaders, to coach others within the organization about proper conduct during the event, and how to spot employees who may be violating the rules, are intoxicated and unable to drive, or may become disruptive.

Remind managers that they must lead by example at all times, including at the holiday party. Frame the party as a recognition event. It's a time when your leaders should take the time to thank employees and demonstrate their value to the company. The leaders can enjoy themselves, of course, but it is still a work event.

Understanding the legal issues

What kind of lawsuits can you expect if you don't take precautions? The laws and penalties vary greatly by state and cover a range of bases, including sexual harassment, discrimination and retaliation. In some instances, an employer may be held liable if an employee causes an accident or injury during or after a company-sponsored event.

That's why preparation is so essential. For instance, some companies may be surprised to find that, unless the organization is a religious entity, the best practice is to avoid religious holiday themes, since doing so, or omitting some religions from your theme, may offend employees or appear to favor one religious group over another. That could trigger religious discrimination lawsuit.

Related: 17 Best Holiday Cocktails to Take Your Office Party to the Next Level

Verify your insurance coverage for office-related events that are held off-premises.

You don't have to take all the fun out of your workplace celebrations, but as a business owner, you must be responsible and practical. Work closely with your HR team, engage with your employees and be creative with your party planning. Also be sure to take the necessary steps now to ensure that your holiday event is a success this year and for many years to come. Have a fun celebration!

Jay Starkman

Founder and CEO, Engage PEO

Jay Starkman is the founder and CEO of Engage PEO, a professional employer organization providing HR outsourcing solutions to small and mid-sized businesses across the United States. In addition to HR services, Engage offers counsel to help clients minimize costs and maximize efficiency through a full range of health and workers compensation insurance products. Starkman holds a law degree from the University of Miami.

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