As we transition from summer picnic season to fall/winter party season, you may be inclined to hold a gathering for your employees.  After all, you appreciate them and want to show your thanks by showing them a generous, good time.  However, too much of a good time at these functions can cause put employers in a sticky legal situation, so it’s a good idea to keep a few tips in mind as you consider having such a function.images

First, if you do hold a party, be certain it isn’t mandatory for your employees, and don’t provide any kind of bonus or presents only to those in attendance.  Make sure your employees know that the gathering is completely optional. Also, consider holding the party during non-working hours – for instance, early in the evening or during the day on a weekend.  In fact, it may be best to hold the party away from your business premises altogether, so it’s less likely to be viewed as a work-related activity, relatively speaking.

Next, carefully consider whether you will serve alcoholic drinks at the gathering.  You can, of course, but if you do, take some safety precautions.  For instance, you may consider serving a maximum of two drinks per person.  Also, let employees know beforehand that it is prohibited for them or their guests to bring their own alcoholic beverages to the party.

As an alternative, consider holding the event at a restaurant, or hiring a professional, trained bartender.  Instruct the individual serving the drinks not to serve anyone who appears to be impaired or intoxicated and to inform a company representative if they observe such a person. It’s also a good idea to ask certain employees to keep an eye out for anyone (employees or their guests) who appears to have had too much to drink.

One way to curb concerns of attendees consuming too much alcohol is to ensure that plenty of food and non-alcoholic drinks are available to consume instead.  Having food in your stomach slows down the absorption of blood into your bloodstream, and water or other non-alcoholic drinks may further dilute the impact of any alcohol otherwise consumed.  It’s also not a bad idea to consider serving lower-proof alcoholic drinks at your party, such as beer and wine, rather than hard alcohol.

Finally, limit the time frame during which alcohol is served.  For example, just have a cocktail hour at the beginning of the party.  In a similar vein (and if you decide against the cocktail hour idea), it is a good suggestion to stop serving alcohol well before the end of the party.  Tell managers and other company representatives not to invite others to move the party to a bar or another location where more drinking could occur.  And don’t forget – taking the focus away from alcohol can further help diminish the likelihood of negative consequences flowing from too much consumption.  For example, you can have games, dancing, or other entertainment that keeps people from standing at the bar.

If you find out that – despite your many precautions – one of your employees has become intoxicated, don’t tell the employee to leave unless they have a ride or another safe way home.  Forcing the employee to leave the gathering could cause that employee to drive away intoxicated.  If that employee ends up in an auto accident, you could be liable to the injured person(s).  If, at the end of the event, an employee is still intoxicated, don’t force another employee to take them home, but consider getting them a taxi or a hotel room.  Paying for either is much cheaper than defending a lawsuit.

One last tip in advance of the celebratory season:  before the party, consider reminding your employees of policies that are more likely to be broken at parties – for example, sexual harassment and substance abuse policies.  Employees should be reminded not to make inappropriate comments or to engage in inappropriate touching at employer-sponsored functions.  Even though the party isn’t work, employees still need to behave professionally toward each other.

Parties can be a great way to encourage a friendly atmosphere among your employees and to show your appreciation, but you certainly don’t want your generosity to come back to haunt you at Halloween, leave coal in your stocking in December, or ditch you under the Mistletoe on New Year’s Eve.  When you plan your parties, consider that extra preparation and money spent up front can make for a more successful gathering – and can keep you from spending a lot more money defending a lawsuit afterward.  Cheers!

Kaite Robidoux focuses her practice in the area of labor and employment law.
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