‘Tis the season for work holiday parties and office merriment. These gatherings can be a great way to show employees your appreciation, spread holiday cheer, and give everyone a chance to have fun and unwind at the end of the year. However, they also can be a significant source of legal liability. Employers do not need to be Mr. Grinch and cancel all holiday parties. But, they must recognize the risks associated with hosting holiday parties and take steps to minimize their exposure.

Employer Liabilities

Remember the Party Is an Extension of Your Workplace - Always remember that an employer-sponsored holiday event is an extension of the workplace. This applies to formal holiday parties as well as informal gatherings in bars and restaurants if hosted by a manager and/or paid for by the company. An employer may be responsible for misbehavior at these events in the same way it is responsible for such behavior in the workplace, especially if management is present.

Don’t Drink and Drive - The consumption of alcohol may pose another major concern for employers. If an employer sponsors a party, it is responsible for employee safety during the event and, to some degree, after it concludes. This is particularly an issue if alcohol is served. The “social host” doctrine, which imputes liability to noncommercial providers of alcohol for injuries and damage stemming from an intoxicated guest, has been extended to employer-employee functions in several jurisdictions.

As an application of this doctrine, if an intoxicated employee leaves your party and subsequently gets into a car accident, an employer potentially could be liable for injuries sustained not only by the employee but also any third party.

Three Simple Steps

There are a three simple steps that all employers can take to minimize the risks associated with hosting a holiday gathering.

  1. Inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated

Before the party, all participants (and managers, in particular) should be reminded about expected rules of conduct at these social gatherings. Issue a simple statement reminding employees of your conduct and anti-harassment policies and stating that professional behavior is expected and inappropriate behavior will not be tolerated.

  1. Managers must be on guard

Remind managers and supervisors that they should be on watch during the party and should try to identify and stop any potentially inappropriate or harassing behavior.

  1. Don’t let employees drink and drive

At a party where alcohol is being served, an employer should take steps to make sure that employees who have been drinking have a safe way of getting home and should not, under any circumstances, permit employees to drink and drive. Employers should consider establishing a “safe-ride” program where the company will reimburse employees for the cost of their cab rides home from holiday parties.

Holiday parties can be great fun, if they are managed correctly. Have a great party and Happy New Year!