The Office Holiday Party and Legal Liability

Most companies host some sort of traditional holiday or end-of-year party in December as a chance for employees to relax and celebrate the festive season together.  Holiday parties are a great way for business owners to help employee morale and make employees feel appreciated. Employers, however, should be mindful that the merriment and mistletoe do not go too far at these annual events.

Not only do company holiday parties subject the employer to social host laws that may result in liability from drunken guests who go on to create mayhem or worse, but they also may facilitate sexual harassment opportunities.

Alcoholic beverages are often viewed as an essential ingredient in these holiday parties.   When employers serve alcohol at a holiday party, they may be taking responsibility for their guests’ consumption.  For example if a guest who is drunk goes on to drive drunk and/or cause damage or injury, there is a possibility that the employer will be held liable. Some things a business owner can do to limit such liability include:

  • Provide plenty of things to eat so that people do not drink on empty stomachs.  Along with that employers should avoid serving too many salty foods since these may encourage people to drink more.
  • Hire a bartender.  Even if there is an open bar, it is better to have someone such as a bartender dispensing alcoholic drinks. Bartenders should be instructed to limit alcoholic consumption and act as a gatekeeper.
  • Offer a large assortment of soft drinks and non-alcoholic drink options.
  • Dispense “drink tickets” whereby all attendees are given a limited number of tickets for the open bar; once the tickets are gone, they can purchase their own drinks (reducing the employer’s costs as well as its liability) or drink the plentiful soft options.
  • Holding the holiday gathering earlier in the day may reduce consumption in that most people do not associate heavy drinking with earlier afternoon hours.
  • Serving no alcohol altogether; and
  • Offering shuttles or taxis making it easy for employees to get home from the party without driving.

Sexual harassment is another liability that employers need to be mindful of during holiday parties. Sexual harassment can come in many forms and the holiday party can offer ideal (if that is the word) conditions for most of them. A relaxed party atmosphere combined with alcohol, can quickly erode inhibitions. Methods of minimizing the possibility of sexual harassment at the annual winter shindig include:

  • Circulating the company harassment policies prior to the party;
  • Reminding employees that the policies apply to events outside of the routine 9-5 environment including the holiday party;
  • Giving a refresher course to supervisors on the rules and what to do if they witness or hear of potential problem.
  • Establishing a dress code for the party that keeps things professional. Avoiding provocative dress can alleviate some forms of harassment.
  • Hosting a family event instead of limiting your party attendees to just the employees.  Inviting spouses or families is likely to reduce the potential for harassment issues.
  • Inviting clients or business partners, since the presence of other people may help keep the event appropriate.

Avoid some traditions: Mistletoe may be your favorite decoration of the season, but it may not belong in the office. Avoid anything that could contribute to an environment of harassment.

Happy holidays and cheers to the holiday party.  It is still possible to have a legally safe holiday party at your office as long as you take responsible steps to limit future liability.

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