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One of My Employees Got Smashed at the Office Holiday Party

Takeaway: Intervene before, during, and after the incident.

Q: All week, my colleagues and I talked about the impending office holiday party. In our company, it’s the only time of the year that all departments converge for conversation, cookies, and of course, cocktails. James from accounting and I were standing by the chocolate fountain sipping on aforementioned cocktails when we noticed that my sales associate, an employee who has been with me for three years, was holding two glasses of the cranberry vodka mixed drink. I had heard of people getting too drunk at business functions such as this one, but it usually happened on Netflix when I binge watched The Office. Throughout the night, however, she got a little too close to other co-workers, although many didn’t mind and she tried to dance on a desk but was luckily dissuaded when another employee asked her to play a card game. So, I see my employee imbibing with an intensity I worried might land her in physical trouble let alone professional trouble, and… I decided not to intervene in the moment. Now I’m wondering if it was my managerial duty to address the issue then or if it’s warranted to confront her about it after the fact. Nothing too crazy happened at the party, but I’m wondering if it’s behavior I should let slide or reign in just in case anyone found it offensive and is keeping it to themselves. Can you help me?

A: This one’s easy: the answers are yes and yes. It was your responsibility to address the issue in real time, and it’s likewise your responsibility to conduct a post-mortem with the employee afterwards and discuss what could have happened. Better yet—Advise your team proactively before the event to raise their awareness of what could go wrong. You’d be surprised how often this situation comes up, and as a leader, you have an obligation to protect your employees and the organization from potential indiscretions that sometimes happen at offsite events that include alcohol.

  • Before

Let’s break it down into before, during, and after interventions. Before a holiday party or offsite event, meet with your team to prepare them for some of the temptations that may be coming their way:

“Team, I wanted to call a short meeting in advance of tonight’s offsite event / holiday party. I think it’s worth a few minutes of discussion covering how to best handle yourself and what to do if you’re placed in an awkward or uncomfortable situation for any reason. Networking events are meant to be fun and spontaneous where you have an opportunity to get to know other employees you don’t normally work with. But there are limits to what our company or any company would consider acceptable behavior, and people have been known to jeopardize otherwise successful careers with just one night of indiscretion. In fact, people have lost their jobs for losing their cool at offsite events like this.

“Employees have to hold themselves accountable for all aspects of their conduct and behavior as if they were back in the office, and that’s the standard you’ll be held to. This is a work-related event, and work standards prevail. When it comes to inappropriate conduct and harassment, the fact that you’re at a company-sponsored event doesn’t mean that the rules no longer apply. If anything gets weird or out of control, come see me or Mark from Human Resources for help. I know most managers don’t hold these types of prep talks with their teams, but I want to make sure we’re all in a good place and on the same page. Are we all in agreement?” [Yes]

  • During

If you notice one of your team members slurring words, walking with an unsteady gait, or trying to climb atop a table, it’s time to step in:

“Jennifer, I need to speak with you privately. How are you feeling? [Fine] I’m concerned that you appear to be under the influence of alcohol, and your attempting to climb on the table just now to dance may cause a lot of concern among the senior management team. Can you understand why I wanted to meet with you quietly to discuss this? [Yes] Jennifer, I’m going to recommend that we call a cab and taxi you home. I don’t want you to risk your career with us in any way, and people have gotten terminated for getting intoxicated and losing it at a holiday party or offsite event like this. Will you support my recommendation to hail a taxi and get you home safe and sound right now?” [Yes]

  • After

Whether you addressed this during the event and sent Jennifer home or failed to discuss it in real time and let the matter slide, you owe it both to your employee and to your company to meet with her to discuss the events at the offsite meeting the night before:

“Jennifer, we need to discuss your behavior at last night’s offsite event. Do you recall what occurred? [A little bit] You appeared to be out of control—inebriated beyond the point of self-control. When you attempted to climb up on a table to dance, we were able to distract you and convince you to play a card game instead. But your loss of control was noticed by others, and while I’m not planning on disciplining you or terminating you based on your conduct last night, you need to know that you placed your position is serious jeopardy. Many people have lost their jobs for over-indulging at offsite events like this, and we’re lucky that nothing too crazy happened.

“But the advice I’m sharing with you here isn’t just for our company—it’s for any organization where you work. You can’t jeopardize everything because there’s simply too much at risk at offsite events where alcohol is served. What questions can I answer for you in terms of the advice I’m sharing? [Details] Will you make a commitment to me that we’ll never have to have a discussion like this again, and will you make a commitment to your career that you won’t place your position in jeopardy again by permitting yourself to lose control at a corporate-sponsored offsite event where alcohol is served?” [Yes]

Job well done! You’ll have handled the matter professionally, respectfully, and in a spirit of goodwill. After all, had anything gone wrong, you would have been within your rights to discipline or terminate the individual—it’s that serious. Lock it down with a commitment that you’ll never have to have this type of discussion with the individual again. Most important, know that of the three stages of involvement, the “Before” stage is most critical going forward in your leadership career because it helps avoid the problem in the first place. Set expectations clearly for your team members and share your hard-earned wisdom that will help them safeguard their careers and reputations.

Paul Falcone

Paul Falcone is an HR executive who has held senior-level positions with Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon, and City of Hope. A long-time contributor to HR Magazine, he is the author of many bestselling books, including 2600 Phrases for Effective Performance Reviews. He lives in Los Angeles.

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