It is officially the holiday season. Employees are humming carols as they work, counting down the days until holiday break. The office is decorated with poinsettias and twinkle lights, employees are donning their best holiday sweaters and sweets can be found around every corner. It is the perfect time of year to celebrate the end of 2012 and to embrace the holiday spirit with the yearly office holiday party. While the dos and don’ts of office parties are nothing innovative, the fact that lawsuits continue to originate over the spiked-eggnog and rule-relaxed setting of an office party demonstrates that a reminder to employers about the dos and don’ts of office holiday parties can help prevent a very blue, blue Christmas.
- Have a religious-themed party. Call the party a “Holiday Party” or “End of the Year Celebration
- Have a mistletoe. No good can come of mistletoe at an office holiday party.
- Encourage the exchange of gag-gifts or naughty gifts. This is asking for sexual harassment complaints.
- Hold the party in the office if it can be avoided. Instead, an off-site party during the weekend supports the argument that the party is not work-related. However, steer clear of inappropriate-themed restaurants, comedy-clubs or strip clubs when selecting a venue.
- Require attendance or conduct work-related activities at the holiday party. If an employer requires or expects employees to attend the holiday party the employer may face Fair Labor Standard Acts violations if they do not pay hourly employees for the time spent at the party. Additionally, if attendance at the holiday party is “within the course and scope of employment,” then the employer may be liable for employee misconduct.
- Draft employment policies that specifically state that the policies remain in effect at Company-sponsored events, including office parties.
- Remind employees that the handbook still applies to holiday parties. Be clear with employees about what is and what is not appropriate to wear to the party. Additionally, remind employees about social media polices in effect; nobody wants to relive the office party highlights on YouTube.
- Remind managers that they should be enforcing company policies during the party.
- Invite spouses or significant others. The presence of these individuals prevent opportunities for sexual harassment between co-workers.
- Limit the amount of alcohol. This can be done through drink tickets or by hiring a bartender who is instructed to cut employees off. Additionally, consider closing the bar well before the end of the party. The more alcohol that employees drink the more likely the employees are to make bad choices.
- Provide plenty of food for the employees and non-alcoholic beverages. Food helps to slow the absorption of alcohol. However, employers should be mindful to include food options that meet employees’ dietary requirements (vegetarian, low-fat, etc.).
- Arrange for cabs and designed drivers. Preventing employees from driving drunk when leaving a holiday party not only protects the safety of the employees, but it protects employers from bad publicity and even liability resulting from an employee’s accident.
- Take any employee complaint about harassment or discrimination related to the office party seriously and investigate the complaint immediately.
An employer does not need to be the Grinch when it comes to holiday parties. Instead, by following the above suggestions and reminding employees of the Company’s expectations prior to the office party, employers and employees alike can eat, drink, and be merry… without the threat of a lawsuit.