PART 1: A CHECKLIST TO HELP EMPLOYERS AVOID THE LEGAL RISKS PRESENTED BY EMPLOYER-SPONSORED HOLIDAY PARTIES.
The holidays are here and office merriment is beginning as we now enter the holiday season. Your company is now focused on the preparation and details of the upcoming big holiday office party. Yet, quite often, employers forget the most important detail when it comes to planning holiday parties-what to do about excessive or any alcohol consumption and inappropriate behavior. Moreover, in today's real-time social media world any bad behavior can be caught on a camera phone and disseminated in minutes over social media. The festive atmosphere combined with the consumption of alcohol at an employer-sponsored party make it a potential venue for inappropriate behavior and may lead to an employee or third-party claims based on damages suffered during or after the event. While planning and having the event, employers should be focused on the following:
A. Ensure that existing human resources policies specifically address employer-sponsored social functions (including Christmas and New Year's events).
Employers may want to amend their harassment policies to specifically address employer-sponsored social events. In particular, employers may want to use the written policies to provide specific examples of conduct at holiday parties that is unacceptable. The policy and follow-up memo to your employees should emphasize that risque or adult-themed gift parties, as examples, should never be exchanged with coworkers whether the affair is on-site or off-site. Additionally, any existing social media policies should specify that the posting of photos from an office party is prohibited and that the employer reserves the right to grant permission of any such postings in advance-no exceptions.
B. Keep holiday customs appropriate the workplace and avoid the underwear parties, if possible.
In planning an employer-sponsored holiday event, employers must avoid 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 somehow thought it would be a good idea to exchange underwear. Why this employer thought this would be a good idea is beyond me but it did happen. In fact, not only did it happen but several problems occurred with some new employees who were not so happy with the old holiday traditions.
C. Consider allowing guests to attend.
Of course, the natural inclination is to keep "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." The problem is that such a notion allows employees employers, for that matter, to take excessive risks that they would not otherwise take if guests were to attend. I would rather doubt that the above-referenced underwear party would have ever occurred in the first instance if spouses and/or clients were in attendance.
D. Go alcohol-free.
You need not need alcohol to have a festive holiday party-perhaps. 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 potential future legal fees, damages and insurance hikes in the event of an injury to either an employee or third-party. Still, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that a majority of organizations( almost 59%) will be serving alcohol at these events. If you must do this, provide drink tickets so as to establish a maximum number of drinks per person, have a bartender and offer only a cash bar.
In Party Smart( Part 2) I will further examine the potential liabilities associated with holiday parties as they concern both liabilities from alcoholic consumption and sexual harassment. Contact the Katz Law Group at 508-480-8202 for guidance on how to make your holiday party work smarter.