Avoiding A Workplace Holiday Party Lawsuit Hangover


[author: Jamie Mahler]

Executive Summary:  'Tis the season for workplace holiday parties, which can bring about questionable and awkward behavior as co-workers mingle with alcohol. To prevent a legal hangover, employers should take some upfront precautions with regard to their holiday and end-of-the-year parties.

Holiday parties typically generate a surge of sexual harassment complaints, as employees often lose their inhibitions while drinking alcohol in a festive environment. It is well established that the office holiday party is part of the "working environment" when analyzing a "hostile work environment" claim. Thus, unwelcome sexual conduct at an office party that is sufficiently severe or pervasive can constitute sexual harassment.

To avoid occurrences of sexual harassment, employers should consider the following ideas for their holiday party:

  • Circulate a memo the day of the party reminding employees that it is an occasion for colleagues to celebrate the company's performance in a joyful, yet professional, manner.  Make employees aware that the employer will not tolerate misconduct of any kind.
  • Provide employees with proper training on the company's sexual harassment policy.
  • Train supervisors on the proper handling of violations of that policy. 
  • Consider inviting significant others to the event to help curb inappropriate behavior.
  • Refrain from displaying mistletoe because it is likely to incite unwelcome behavior. 
  • Establish rules prohibiting sexually charged gift exchanges (gift cards are the safest bet).
  • Promptly investigate any complaint of sexual harassment that is made.

It comes as no surprise that alcohol is a contributing factor in the vast majority of holiday party sexual harassment claims. Although the law only prohibits unwelcome sexual advances, alcohol skews the judgment of harassers and victims alike, and conduct that seemed acceptable during a period of intoxication may be unacceptable in retrospect. While eliminating alcohol altogether might not be realistic, there are many things employers can do to mitigate the risks and to minimize overindulgence:

  • Consider having a holiday lunch or coordinating a volunteer event.
  • For evening events, ensure there is a set end time and close the bar an hour or more before that time.
  • Exclude hard liquor from the menu (serve only beer and/or wine).
  • Consider designating certain senior supervisors to oversee the event and remain sober during the festivities.
  • Hire a professional bartender or hold the event at a location offering bartending services.  Allowing employees to serve themselves could encourage them to pour too generously and/or refill their drinks too frequently.
  • Establish a maximum number of drinks that an individual can have.  For instance, some companies have utilized drink tickets or vouchers (two is standard).
  • Alternatively consider offering a cash bar and donating the cash received to a non-profit organization.
  • Ensure the availability of many non-alcoholic beverages and plenty of food.

Employers' Bottom Line:  While holiday parties can be a source of liability for employers, these suggestions can help ensure your party remains issue free.

This Alert was written by Jamie Mahler, an attorney with the Lowenbaum Partnership, L.L.C., a FordHarrison affiliate law firm.  

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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