TIPS TO AVOID LIABILITY AT THE HO-HO-HOLIDAY PARTY

With the holidays fast approaching, employers and employees alike are beginning to look forward to company holiday parties.  However, it’s no secret that these parties can be a double-edged sword for employers.  They are a great way to boost employee morale, but poor planning can expose employers to sexual harassment complaints and social host liability lawsuits.  Whether your party is a casual lunch in the office or a cocktail party at a favorite local venue, thoughtful planning will help ensure a safe, enjoyable, and hopefully liability-free event.  Here are a few easy ways to reduce the risk for your organization: 

Avoid parties with a religious connotation

Avoid using religious terms to describe the party and instead opt for phrases like “holiday party” or “year-end celebration.”  Choose a label for your party and use it consistently.  

Consider when to host the party

The time of a party can minimize problematic behaviors.  A daytime event is your best bet to curb excessive alcohol consumption.  If an evening event is better for your company, consider planning the event for a weekday rather than a weekend.  Employees are more likely to monitor their alcohol consumption when they know they have to work the next morning. 

Invite employees and request an RSVP

Invite all employees to the party, but be clear that attendance is not mandatory.  Consider allowing each employee to bring a guest.  Employees are more likely to be on their best behavior if they bring along a spouse or other guest.  If possible, request an RSVP from employees.  This RSVP helps you to staff the party appropriately. 

Review and re-publish the company’s sexual harassment policy

Ensure company policies specify that they apply to company-sponsored events outside of the office and to social events in the office, and before your celebration, remind all of your employees that each and every company policy – including but not limited to your sexual harassment policy – applies to the holiday party.  Sexual harassment isn’t the only risk at holiday parties, but it’s certainly one of the most common, so consider having a short meeting with your supervisors before the celebration to remind them of the harassment policy and what steps to take if they witness harassment at the party. 

Devise a system to limit drinking

Alcohol is the root of many problems associated with office parties.  One way to reduce potential liability is to have an alcohol-free gathering.  If you’d like to provide alcohol, then find ways to limit consumption.  Consider having a cash bar, serving only beer and wine, and limiting the hours the bar is open.  At the very least, close the bar at least an hour before the party ends.  

Hire professional bartenders

Professional bartenders are a worthwhile expense. These bartenders should be the only ones pouring drinks at the party.  Instruct the bartenders to cut off service to any intoxicated employee.  

Provide food and non-alcoholic drinks

Make sure that there are various non-alcoholic drinks easily accessible throughout the party.  Also, be sure to have food available from the start of the party.  Do this even if a sit-down meal is planned later in order to try and ensure that no one is drinking on an empty stomach.  Given the option to hold either a plate of food or a drink, most people choose only the drink, so make it easy for partygoers to both eat and drink.  Choose a venue with high tables or have servers walk around offering appetizers.  

Arrange for transportation

Arrange for taxis or a shuttle service for any employee who wants or needs it.  Designate certain employees to stay sober and encourage employees to use the taxi or shuttle if they’ve had too much to drink. 

Avoid problematic traditions

Avoid traditions such as hanging mistletoe, or having someone dress up as Santa and inviting employees to sit on his lap.  If your office plans to have a gift exchange, set a reasonable spending limit and remind employees that inappropriate gifts are not tolerated in the exchange. 

There is no way to completely eliminate the risk of liability associated with an office party, but by incorporating some or all of the above elements into your holiday party, you’ll likely reduce that risk.  Everyone on the Employment Essentials team wishes you a happy, safe, healthy, and enjoyable holiday season.

 

Lindsay Bouffard focuses her practice in the area of labor and employment law.
 
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