Delicious food, fine wines, music, camaraderie, laughter – all ingredients for a great holiday get-together.  What could go wrong?  Too much, unfortunately.  Employees may drink too much, act inappropriately, offend co-workers or guests, hurt themselves or others, or even start a brawl. Depending on the circumstances, your company may find itself potentially liable for the inappropriate or unlawful actions of your employees at company-sponsored parties.  You can help minimize the risks associated with holiday parties by following these five tips. 

  • Avoid or Limit Alcohol 

Employers face potential liability when providing alcohol at a company holiday event when someone gets hurt due to drunk driving, falling down, etc., or when inappropriate behavior crosses the line from embarrassing to unlawful, such as sexual harassment or violence during an argument.  You can limit your company’s exposure for such conduct by either banning alcohol entirely (we know that may not be well-received in some situations), or limiting each person’s consumption through the use of drink tickets or a 2-drink limit.  If you choose to allow alcohol at your events, don’t allow free access to the alcohol (e.g., open bar, self-serve beer or unlimited wine bottles).  Instead have a professional, licensed bartender serve the alcohol as they are trained not to over-serve patrons.  Be sure to offer plenty of food and non-alcoholic beverages.  Arrange for taxis or hotel stays if someone over-indulges.  Schedule the event during the week so folks are less inclined to get carried away. Set an end time for the party and shut down the bar at least a half hour before the event closes.  Do not authorize or condone “after parties.” Finally, designate some supervisors or managers to refrain from drinking alcohol to make sure things don’t get out of hand. 

  • Keep Harassing Behavior in Check 

Make sure that your sexual harassment policy is up-to-date and that it applies to company parties, even if held off company premises.  Send out a reminder to employees in advance of the party that all company policies, including those prohibiting harassment and other inappropriate conduct, apply to the party. Consider making the event a family party where employees may bring their spouse, significant other, or children as the presence of family members and children often deters inappropriate behavior which could give rise to a harassment complaint.  Make sure that supervisors and managers watch out for potentially harassing conduct and are trained to intervene as necessary. 

  • Respect Religious Differences and Keep the Party Neutral  

Although many holidays toward the end of the year are religious in nature, be sensitive to your employees’ varying religious beliefs and avoid any conduct that could be construed as favoring one religious group over another.  Refrain from calling your party a “Christmas Party” and stick with the neutral “Holiday Party” instead.  Do not make attendance at the company-sponsored events such as parties, volunteer activities, food drives or other holiday outings mandatory.  Make sure the timing of the company party does not exclude any employees for religious reasons.  For example, because the Jewish Sabbath starts on Friday night, a party on a Friday evening may exclude Jewish employees.  Avoid decorating with religious symbols, such as nativity scenes, menorahs or angels.  There are plenty of neutral decorations, such as snowflakes, holly and reindeer, that can be used instead.  

  • Be Wary of Gift Exchanges 

Gift exchanges between employees may seem innocuous enough, but consider the potential issues a gift exchange may cause.  Employees may not be able to afford to participate, even within a recommended cost guideline.  Other employees may give sexy or “funny” gifts that end up offending others.  The best practice is to avoid a company or department sponsored gift exchange altogether.  If you decide to allow one among your employees, make sure it is entirely voluntary and no one is pressured or made to feel uncomfortable for not participating.  Set cost guidelines and remind participants that gifts must be appropriate for the workplace. 

  • Remember Wage and Hour Laws 

If you assign any non-exempt employees to plan, prepare for and staff the party, their hours are likely work hours for which they must be paid.  For example, if your office receptionist is required to be at the door of your holiday party to greet guests and hand out name tags, that individual is likely working and you need to include those hours in his or her weekly work hours when determining regular and overtime wages.  You do not need to pay employees who are attending the party if their attendance is voluntary and they are not expected to provide services that benefit your organization. 

Follow this checklist and you’ll avoid last minute holiday headaches and keep your organization out of trouble.