The Morning After: How to Handle Embarrassing Displays at Your Office Holiday Party

Almost everyone can attest to having witnessed humorous displays of bad behavior at an office holiday party. But when similar situations occur at your company fête, it is rarely a laughing matter.

Picking up the pieces after an unfortunate incident requires more than discretion. The wrong reaction can cause bigger problems than whatever happened the night before. Whether you saw firsthand who was involved or overheard office gossip the following day, there are guidelines you should follow to protect your business and your employees.

1. Determine if the incident bears further discussion or if all involved should agree to an “amnesia pact”

An alcohol-fueled karaoke performance of an inappropriate song or a tryst involving consenting adults are probably not situations that require your involvement. But if one employee suffered unwelcome advances from a colleague, especially a supervisor, you should intervene. Any time an employee approaches you with a complaint it should be taken seriously.

2. Keep an open mind

You may be absolutely positive who was involved in an unfortunate situation, but don’t assume anything. Set aside your personal feelings and treat the incident like a criminal investigation: everyone is innocent until proven guilty. “You can’t take what’s being said around the water cooler and assume that’s what happened. Don’t jump to conclusions,” says Insperity Senior HR Specialist Rick Gibbs.

3. Investigate

Document everything. It may seem silly to create a “case file” with the “who, what, when and where,” but gathering information and separating facts from rumors and impressions is crucial.

4. Ascertain the potential liability to your business

If one of your employees starts his or her celebration at noon and consumes more beer than the average fraternity by the end of the night, an accident caused on the way home from your party can be your problem and create a huge liability for your business. Be proactive about soliciting legal advice in any situation where there has been a real or perceived hurt or injury. “All company-sponsored functions are classified as the workplace,” notes Gibbs. If an incident would not be acceptable at the office it should not be at the office party. Keep in mind that discrimination and/or harassment claims can just as easily arise from a social setting.

5. Don’t be impulsive

A controlled and calculated reaction is your best bet. If something occurred that is so significant it cannot be dismissed and (hopefully) forgotten, then it’s important that you act carefully. Telling an employee that their alcohol-fueled rant about how much they hate their job is the reason for their termination is fine, as long as you’ve got the proper documentation and follow the proper termination process. Though you may want to say “you’re fired” the moment the person completes their tirade, it’s important to maintain control and not give in to your own impulses.

While you can’t guarantee that everyone will be on their best behavior at your company’s holiday party, you can control your reaction to any situations that arise. Tempering your reaction and dealing with issues in a professional, thoughtful manner will go a long way toward protecting both your business and your employees.