With the holiday season upon us, now is the time to assess your company’s upcoming holiday party, with the biggest concern being employee alcohol consumption. While there is no way to completely insulate your company from liability arising out of employer-sponsored holiday parties, other than a decision not to hold a holiday party all together or to not serve alcohol, there are certain steps that a company can take to limit such liability to avoid harassment claims and incidents resulting from drunk driving. While enumerating these risks may make you want to shout, “Bah humbug!”, if you follow these recommendations, your holiday party can still be a fun, year-end event, rather than a source of liability.
- Limit Alcohol consumption. Either ban alcohol entirely, or limit each person’s consumption through the use of drink tickets or a 2-drink limit. Don’t allow free access to the alcohol. Hire a professional bar staff and instruct them not to overserve. Be sure to offer plenty of food and non-alcoholic beverages. Close the bar well before the party ends. Arrange for taxis, other forms of transportation and hotel stays if someone over-indulges. If an employee is injured or in an accident because of excessive alcohol consumption at a holiday party, the employee may be eligible to collect workers’ compensation benefits. The employer could also be liable in the event of accident or injury where the employer allowed an inebriated guest to drive and endanger the lives of others on the roads.
- Make sure that your sexual harassment policy is up-to-date and that it applies to company parties, even if held off company premises. Conduct considered inappropriate at work sometimes arise at parties because of excessive alcohol consumption, and can create future legal problems. While the holiday party may seem like an informal setting, relationships between employees that ensue from holiday parties can be just as problematic as those that occur in the office. 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. Invite to the holiday party spouses, significant others and families (even children), which can keep the atmosphere of a company party more reserved and discourages inappropriate behavior. Make sure that supervisors and managers watch out for potentially harassing conduct and are trained to intervene as necessary.
- Make attendance voluntary, unless the event is held during work hours as part of a meeting or other work-related function. Employers may see a holiday party as a non-work event, since employees are not performing their usual job duties. Under many state wage and hour statutes, however, that may not be the case. If attendance at the holiday party is mandatory, then it is likely that employees have to be paid for the time they spend there. The same could be true if attendance is not mandatory but is strongly encouraged, either explicitly or implicitly. 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.
- Keep it neutral: call it a “Holiday Party”. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observances, practices and beliefs, as long as it can do so without undue hardship on the employer’s business operations—including at a holiday party. 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. Guests who follow religious traditions other than those commonly associated with the holiday season may feel disrespected. Choose to be inclusive of all your guests.
Finally, enjoy the holidays and celebrating all of the year’s accomplishments with your employees, but do it in a manner that allows everyone to feel safe and valued. Remember that employment law and workplace policies still apply even when you may feel like you are “off the clock”.