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Spreading Cheer Without Fear

Originally published: 12.01.06 by Tonya Vinas


Holiday parties can be a great way to show a hard-working staff your appreciation and have some fun after a year of hard work. They also can leadto injury, lawsuits, and insults if not planned properly. Here are some tips and advice to make company parties memorable for the right reasons.

Raucous holiday parties went out of style in corporate America about the same time last call was announced for three-martini lunches. These days, when we do still hear of party-gone-bad behavior, it’s often at small and midsize companies, where year-end parties are seen by many as a reward for the rigors and rituals of work- ing hard side-by-side with a small group of people. Sometimes, though, things get so out of hand that the fun is ruined, and only bad memories remain.

“Unfortunately, I have seen company Christmas parties that got out of control,” said Ron Smith an HVACR Business editorial adviser and owner of sev- eral hvacr businesses. “When that happens, it is not a good experience for the co-workers and their families, as well as the company. Christmas parties should be carefully planned and controlled.”

If planning a holiday party, company owners and managers should carefully consider and have purposeful plans

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Liability: The biggest liability worry for many busi- ness owners is serving alcohol to a party-goer who then causes injury. According to Dave Myer, senior vice president at Dawson Insurance (dmyer@DawsonCompanies.com, 440-333-9000) in Rocky River, Ohio, standard forms of a business’ general liability policy will cover liquor liability as long as the company is not in the business of manufacturing, distributing, serving, or selling alcoholic beverages. Myer suggests before the party, get a statement in writing from your insurer that liquor liability is covered. “Ninety-five percent of businesses will be covered,” he said.

However, he warns, this does not completely protect you. Liquor liability lawsuits are decided by courts, which could decide that a company is in the booze business even if its primary business activity is not. He recalls one case in which such a business was ruled to be liable because it maintained a separate area for entertaining clients, which included serving alcohol.

Location: Having the party at a neutral location, such as a restaurant or party center, will increase up-front costs but could save money and aggravation in the long run because:

• liability falls under the site’s insurance. This not only means liquor liability but also worker compensation, slip-and-fall injuries, etc. This is also true for a caterer or professional bartender that comes to your site. Myer recommends getting documentation of insurance from any person or business hired for the party.

• someone else is doing the work. At every office, there tend to be people whom others expect to perform activities such as serving food, cleaning up, decorating, finding needed items, etc. But these hard workers deserve a good time, too, and won’t appreciate having to do most of the work.

• professionals are best to handle hot food and alcohol. If an employee spills hot food on himself or someone else during the party or falls and is injured, he could file a worker compensation claim. A professional caterer or restaurant server is trained in how to handle hot food and food equipment and is not one of your employees. Also, professional bartenders are a better choice than having employees serve drinks. (See “Tips For Serving Alcohol,”).

• it puts everyone in a comfortable, non-competitive environment. This is relevant if you are considering having the party at your home or a manager’s home. “Sometimes the owner of a small business will host a party in her home. Although the hospitality may be well intended, I don’t think it’s the best option,” writes Donna Pilato, an entertainment expert for About.com. “From the owner’s standpoint, employees can judge your personal circumstances and make comparisons to their own less-lofty digs. From the employees’ perspective, it is not as comfortable as a party held on neutral territory. The corporate hierarchy is still apparent when you’re on the boss’ turf.”

Activity: Do something besides eat and drink. Perhaps eating and drinking is a minor part of the get-to-gether. Some companies have events instead of parties, such as a visit to a local aquarium or a sporting event with a catered meal or generous allowances for on-site food purchases. This has the added bonus of including family, which many employees appreciate. If you have traditional parties, and find they are not as well attended as in the past, perhaps employees want something different. “Many companies no longer have Christmas parties but find other methods of thanking their co-workers,” Smith says. “And, for the companies that do still have the parties, I find that they are not as well attended by the co-workers as they were many years ago.”

Rewards and recognition: Like the other things that you plan for your business, employee parties should have a purpose. The company leaders should make a welcome statement and state the purpose of the event. This is also a great time to spread kudos, whether verbally or in the form of gifts. Be certain, however, that everyone is mentioned. While sales may be your No. 1 business barometer, don’t over praise sales staff while overlooking support staff and others. Likewise, don’t have a “head table.” The purpose of the party is to make everyone feel appreciated. Also, if you have hired new employees in the past year, this is a good time to tell them how pleased the company is to have them (if indeed it is), and it is a good time to recognize spouses and families.

Diversity: While retailers debate the use of “Christmas” in slogans and decorations, you as a business owner need to be aware of non-Christians on your staff. Plan a party that makes everyone feel welcome. In your welcome statement, mention all end-of-the-year holidays celebrated by your staff whether they are of eth- nic or religious origin. Likewise, avoid cracking jokes about employees or putting others on the spot with stories from the past year. Unless you are absolutely sure no one will be offended by what will be said, then don’t say it.

Finally, have a party, if it is your tradition, even if you have had a bad year. Nearly all businesses go in cycles, and keeping valuable employees around for the up times is important. They need to be encouraged and thanked even if sales aren’t great. One of the best ways to push good employees out the door is to take away the small things that they appreciate.

“Be as generous as your budget allows,” Pilato said. “Employees have worked hard for you all year and they are looking for a show of appreciation.”

Tonya Vinas is a former editor of HVACR Business.


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