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The Festive Shift: Rethinking Alcohol’s Role in Corporate Holiday Parties

Today’s post comes to us from Laurie Ruettimann, host of “The Corporate Drinker Podcast” and author of the forthcoming book, “Corporate Drinker: How to Survive, Thrive, and Build Belonging at Work,” both of which explore the complex relationship among work, alcohol, and corporate culture. 
 
It’s holiday party time. Are you excited or terrified? 
 
Corporate offices and HR teams worldwide buzz with anticipation for these events. Celebrating the year's achievements can be fun, but it comes with quirks, especially regarding alcohol. 
 
As an HR leader, I’ve seen it all. When I worked in corporate human resources at Pfizer, it was my job to be onsite with my client groups in December to hand out drink tickets so that people could have fun responsibly. I’m not sure how many people had fun, and I have horror stories about how people weren’t responsible. Fetch me a drink, and I’ll tell you! 
 
Whether your company is entirely in the office or welcoming back your hybrid workforce to a magnificent year-end celebration, it’s never the wrong time to review the nuances of corporate holiday parties, particularly considering the role of alcohol and critical aspects of professional behavior. And it’s always a good idea to consider ways to make these events twice as good as in years past. 
 
Understanding and Upholding Professional Behavior with Alcohol 
 
Company holiday parties are tricky. You can work hard to create a positive, inclusive experience and, unfortunately, derail that effort with one bad experience. Adults are adults, and beer, wine, and cocktails are legal. But drinking can either unify or derail the party, impacting those who abstain and others too. That’s why striking a balance between professionalism and fun is key. But what is professionalism, and how do we define it? 
 
For my forthcoming book, “Corporate Drinker: How to Survive, Thrive, and Build Belonging at Work,” I had the opportunity to speak with fellow UKG Workforce Institute advisory board member Kate Bischoff, a respected employment attorney based in Minneapolis. She shared her admiration for the Neiman Marcus employee handbook, particularly its emphasis on using good judgment at all times. 
 
“I appreciate how it essentially tells employees to think for themselves,” Kate noted. “It sets the expectation for mature, responsible behavior, understanding social norms, and being accountable in a professional setting. It’s about treating employees like adults and holding them to that standard.” 
 
She also likes how leaders at Neiman Marcus are expected to model good behavior. So, regarding professionalism and holiday parties, leaders should communicate the event’s purpose clearly, ensuring everyone understands why the gathering matters. Proactively informing workers about the presence of alcohol is also vital. 
 
The Dos and Don’ts of Office Celebrations 
 
Navigating the social aspect of a corporate holiday party can be thorny. Employees need to clearly understand how they are expected to show up for an event. Is this party mandatory? Do they bring a gift? What time does it end? How do they know when to leave? 
 
HR leaders and managers can squash anxiety by providing straightforward guidance, which is essential for setting the tone of a corporate holiday party. If attendance is expected, scheduling the event during business hours can help accommodate all staff, including caregivers or those with after-work commitments. Dress codes and event details should be communicated in simple, unambiguous terms, especially if an ugly-sweater contest is involved. And, if alcohol is served, it’s crucial to give employees a warning and even an “out” if they don’t want to attend. 
 
Before the event, encourage your managers to hold a quick refresher on the company’s code of conduct or alcohol policy. Reminding employees that workplace standards apply, even in a party setting, is crucial for safety and ethical conduct. Open discussions and questions can make everyone feel included and prepared for the event. 
 
As a leadership coach, I encourage managers to speak candidly and tell relatable stories about past party faux pas. It can effectively break the ice and make a cogent point about always using good judgment. Here’s my story: I was a young HR leader at a party where people were dancing, and someone over-indulged and tripped over a long dress, leading to an ambulance call and heaps of paperwork. The lesson is that you can drink a Cosmo Martini or dance barefoot to the Black Eyed Peas while wearing a beautiful gown, but don’t do both when the CEO is around. 
 
Honest stories also reinforce the need for self-regulation in festive settings without HR having to intervene constantly. For once, you can enjoy yourself at a party! 
 
Serving Fun for Everyone 
 
Do you think the most significant holiday party risk is “Judy from accounting,” who is known for overdoing it? She’s had a tough year, but the real issue is creating an event that pressures people to drink alcohol even when they would prefer another option. 
 
In my research, I’ve discovered a notable trend: an increasing number of employees want to opt out of alcohol at workplace events. Supporting this observation, Niznik Behavior Health reports that 35% of employees prefer to abstain from drinking in such settings. However, a worrying pattern emerges: 15% of these individuals still drink due to social pressure. 
 
The issue extends even to those who usually enjoy alcohol, with 28% feeling pressured to drink alongside their co-workers. Further underscoring the dilemma, a whopping 45% of employees worry about being judged negatively for avoiding alcohol-centric events, and 20% feel a sense of obligation to drink if their boss does. 
 
The dilemma deepens for non-drinkers: 22% fabricate excuses to skip events where alcohol is served, 5% avoid such work gatherings entirely, and another 12% pretend to drink at these functions. The data highlight the complex social dynamics around alcohol at work functions. 
 
But how do we address the role of alcohol and still have fun at year-end gatherings? Reflecting a broader societal shift toward health and inclusivity, zero-proof beverages are becoming increasingly popular at corporate events. Non-drinkers generally have limited options: sparkling water, soda, and maybe lemonade. But companies can do better. There are better options available, especially for festive occasions. 
 
Try serving something fresh, entertaining, and fun. And serve more than one choice. Sophisticated drink options include mocktails such as alcohol-free mojitos, elegant non-alcoholic wines, and creative concoctions like ginger-beer-based Moscow Mule variants. Offering such choices caters to non-drinkers and shows respect for diverse lifestyles and preferences. Even consider asking workers to vote on their favorite mocktail. 
 
I promise some drinkers will enjoy the variety, too. 
 
Celebrate Responsibly and Have Fun, Too 
 
Year-end holiday parties are more than just festive gatherings — they bridge professional and personal worlds. Gone are the days when these gatherings were centered around terrible appetizers and an open bar. Now, they’re evolving into something everyone can enjoy, regardless of their drink preferences. 
 
HR professionals play a pivotal role in this evolution. By advocating for responsible consumption, offering various drink options, and fostering an environment of inclusivity and respect, HR can create a safer, more enjoyable experience for all employees. 
 
My year-end hope for you is to embrace these changes, lead by example, and help shape a holiday party that aligns with the values and culture of your workplace. And I genuinely hope you get creative and try some fizzy mocktails, too! 

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