‘Tis the season . . . 9 tips for a liability-free holiday party
Is your office holiday party quickly approaching? While the annual festivities can be the source of good cheer and teambuilding, they also can lead to legal liability. Here are some suggestions to make sure that the holiday season stays merry and bright on the employment front.
Do Not call your party a Christmas party
Such an approach can be off-putting to employees who do not celebrate Christmas. Calling the gathering a holiday party or an end-of-year celebration is much more inclusive of different religions, cultures and points of view. Employers also should refrain from decorating with religious imagery, such as nativity scenes or menorahs. And, please, skip the mistletoe!
Do Not offer an open bar or a self-service option
While serving alcohol at a holiday party may seem like a no-brainer, having intoxicated employees potentially out on the roads can create a safety problem and significant liability. To control service, use trained bartenders who can cut off anyone who has had too much. Drink tickets or a cash bar also may help control the flow of alcohol. In addition, just like a baseball game where beer sales cease at the seventh inning stretch, alcohol service should stop well before the event ends.
Do offer food and non-alcoholic drink options
Always serve food so that party goers are not drinking on empty stomachs. In addition, make plenty of non-alcoholic drinks available, preferably for free.
Do offer alternative transportation
For employees who feel that they are unable to drive themselves (or are otherwise deemed unsafe to drive), offer transportation services, such as Uber, Lyft or a taxi, and/or make lodging arrangements at a nearby hotel.
Do set expectations before the event
Holiday parties often feature that one (or more) employee who drinks too much and says or does something he or she regrets later. Unfortunately, that individual can land both himself and his employer in court. Before any holiday party, employers should take a moment to remind their employees that company policies and procedures will apply, even in this social setting. Among the most important policies to emphasize are the company’s anti-harassment policy and the company’s policy regarding alcohol use. If these policies as currently written do not make clear that they apply to work-related functions, it is time to quickly review and update the company’s employee handbook.
Do Not make attendance mandatory
Unless an employer intends to pay its employees to participate, attendance must be voluntary. This is a party, after all – let employees decide whether to attend. Voluntary attendance at an event that is off-site and outside of normal work hours also may minimize any workers’ compensation risk.
Do ask managers to lead by example
Ask managers to be on their best behavior and to lead by example. If managers are staying in control, employees are less likely to be out of control. Before the party, ask managers to limit their drinking, to keep an eye out for inappropriate behavior and to commit to intervening in any developing situation before it gets out of hand.
Do be mindful of social media
Every attendee at your holiday party is likely to have a smart phone in hand. Some employees will want to post comments or pictures from the event on social media. Employers should instruct employees not to photograph, record, or post about party guests without their permission. And if the employer wishes to post on its own social media accounts, it should pay one sober, responsible employee to handle that task.
Do investigate any complaints
Should any complaints arise as the result of conduct at the party, employers must follow their normal complaint procedure and investigate. Failure to do so can lead to even greater liability. Take corrective action for inappropriate behavior by employees consistent with company policies and procedures. As discussed above, even if the party is after normal business hours and/or at an off-site location, employees must understand that their actions at the party can lead to disciplinary action, up to and including termination.
Of course, employers should consult with experienced human resources professionals and/or labor and employment counsel with questions before any holiday celebration – and after the celebration if things go awry. For MEA members, the Hotline and a Member Legal Services attorney are available to provide this assistance. Wishing you a safe and happy Holiday Season!
About the Author
Amy McAndrew is MEA’s Director of Member Legal Services and has over twenty years of experience as a labor and employment attorney.