Ah, the office holiday party. That annual opportunity to kick back with co-workers, celebrate a year of accomplishments -- and make an absolute drunken fool of yourself on the dance floor. After all, there are a million ways an office party can go wrong, especially when the booze starts flowing. More than a few employees have found themselves on the receiving end of a pink slip for inappropriate office party behavior, and employers must be on constant watch for anything that could trigger complaints or a lawsuit. But office holiday parties can also be a great way to boost morale and reward employees for a job well done. So what's the best way to plan -- and survive -- a year-end celebration? Here are five things you need to know.
1. No pictures, please.
Stephen Paskoff, president of ELI, a company that specializes in helping companies change workplace behavior and minimize legal risk, has some interesting thoughts about bringing cell phones, cameras and camcorders to holiday office parties. Namely: Don't do it. "Take no pictures of the party," Paskoff suggests. "There's no reason to record someone else's holiday silliness. If everyone followed this rule, there would be no problems."
If creating lasting memories is important to you, then at least designate one responsible person to be the company's photographer -- especially if alcohol is being served at the party.
Then, good-naturedly insist that everyone promise not to take photos, or at the very least, vow not to post anything compromising on Facebook and Twitter. This all sounds a little ridiculous, but employees should feel free to relax and blow off some steam without worrying that they're going to wind up immortalized online, looking unprofessional.
2. Be inclusive.
The larger the company, the more cliques you probably have. "Networking with people inside or outside your company is important," says Thom Singer, a business development consultant in Austin, Texas, who has thrown more than a few office parties. "Shared experiences help build bonds."
But those bonds won't form if you have separate parties -- one for, say, the guys in the warehouse and one for the staff in the office. "At many law firms, it's 'lawyers' at one party, and 'staff' at another," Singer notes. "Can you guess which has the better location and food? And can you guess how that makes the staff feel?"
3. Plan ahead.
If you're just starting to think about your office party now, then you're already behind. A successful party doesn't just come together at the last minute, especially if this is more or less a do-it-yourself affair. Remember that everyone's taste buds are different. Some people are red-blooded carnivores, and others might be vegans. Some are going to want a cocktail or two, some may not be drinkers. What time are you having the party? Some of your employees may resent it if you hold the event on a Friday night or over weekend, making them miss out on family time. Your party is a reflection of your company and its values -- take it seriously.
4. Let people know what to expect.
Once you have the details in place, don't forget to set the parameters for your employees. If it's a casual affair, they will want to know that. If you institute a no-camera policy, tell them ahead of time. If spouses or significant others are invited, let them know. Nobody wants to walk into a party surprised.
5. Consider the economy.
This probably seems obvious. After all, how can you not consider the economy? The sluggish economy and an unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent has led to the worst party slump in nearly a quarter-century, with 21 percent of businesses opting not to hold a holiday office party this year, according to an annual survey by Amrop Battalia Winston, a prominent global executive search firm.
Of course, that means 79 percent of businesses are still throwing holiday parties. "Even in this economy, businesses must hold some sort of gathering," Singer says. "If there have been layoffs, maybe you can skip the fancy hotel or restaurant, but to skip any type of company party can leave employees feeling distant and overlooked."
On the other hand, "If there is a choice between an office party and a bonus, opt for the bonus," says Diane Gottsman, who owns and runs The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in corporate etiquette training. "Generally, the employees would prefer the extra cash. For smaller offices, take a poll and let the employees decide."
If nothing else, take Singer and Gottsman's advice and split it down the middle -- take everyone out to some inexpensive restaurant, have a fun two hours and then give everyone an envelope with a nice, fat (or as fat as possible) bonus.
Basically, don't be tone deaf to the economy, or to how your employees feel about it. Do something lavish when your employees are overworked and underpaid, and they may end up wondering why they aren't being taken care of the other 364 days of the year. Do something truly pathetic or nothing at all, and employees won't exactly begin the new year feeling a lot of pride for their company.
Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to AOL Small Business. He is also the co-author of the book Living Well with Bad Credit and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 12/9/10.