Part 1: A Checklist to help employers avoid the legal risks presented by employer-sponsored holiday parties as it relates to employees
The holidays are here and office merriment is beginning as we formally enter the holiday season. Your company is now focused on the preparation and details of the upcoming big office party. Yet, quite often, employers forget the most important detail when it comes to planning holiday parties-what to do about excessive alcoholic consumption and inappropriate behavior. The festive atmosphere combined with the consumption of alcohol at an employer-sponsored holiday party make it a potential venue for inappropriate behavior and may lead to employee or third-party claims based on injuries suffered during or after the event. While planning and having the event, employers should be cognizant of the following steps:
1. Ensure that human resources policies address employer-sponsored social functions. Employers may want to amend their harassment policies to specifically address employer-sponsored social events. In particular, employers may want to provide specific examples of conduct at holiday parties that is unacceptable. For example, the policy may remind employees that risqué or adult-themed gifts should not be exchanged with coworkers.
2. Keep holiday customs appropriate to the workplace. In planning an employer-sponsored holiday event, employers should avoid including customs or practices that have the potential to create romantic or sexually-charged situations. For example, a few years ago, I was representing an employer who had an office holiday party wherein certain employees, according to their own holiday tradition, exchanged underwear. Hello, this is not a good idea even under the most liberal and friendly of office environments. That situation resulted in several problems involving some new employees who were not so happy with the old holiday traditions.
3. Consider allowing guests to attend. Of course, the natural inclination is to keep what goes on in the workplace in the workplace. The problem is that such a notion allows employees and employers, for that matter, to take excessive risks that they would not otherwise take if guests were to attend. I doubt, very much, that the above mentioned underwear exchange would have occurred if spouses or clients were in attendance at that function in the first instance.
4. Go alcohol free. You do not need alcohol to have a festive holiday party. If you substitute alcohol with other beverages, the end may very well justify the means. Not only will an employer save money on excessive costs relating to alcoholic distribution but, so too, an employer will save on future legal fees and potential insurance hikes in the event of an injury to either an employee or third-party.
In Eat, Drink and Be Liable? (Part II), I will examine the potential liabilities associated with holding holiday parties as they concern third-parties and how to reduce those risks this holiday season.