Walking in a Winter Litigation Wonderland: Top Employment Mistakes to Avoid at Your Company Holiday Party

by BakerHostetler

 As 2013 draws to a close, attentions turn to the festivities and merriment of the holiday season, and many employers gear up for office holiday parties. A holiday party is a great way to reward employees for a long year’s work, encourage employees to mingle with coworkers outside of their immediate work groups, and set the tone for a happy and productive new year. But holiday parties are also ripe with potential employment law violations which, rather than bringing holiday cheer, may bring Human Resources complaints and lawsuits. Despite their party atmosphere, holiday parties are work-sponsored events, and employers may be liable for potential mishaps—in other words, the liability clock does not necessarily stop when the party starts. But no need to cancel the party just yet. By keeping in mind a few simple tips, you can plan a celebration that will keep you and your employees safe, happy, and ready for 2014.

1.     Beware of Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Mixing alcohol with employees creates a whole host of employment concerns. It only takes one over-served employee to create an uncomfortable, and potentially unsafe, atmosphere. There are many steps employers can take to keep the drunken incidents down. First, host the party off-site to limit potential vicarious liability for any accidents.  Second, hire professional bartenders and instruct them to be on alert and cut off employees who have had one-too-many. And it goes without saying—under no circumstances should they serve any underage employees. Third, try to avoid open bars; drink tickets or cash bars help limit the amount of drinks each employee consumes. Fourth, serve heavy food to combat the effects of the alcohol, and always have plenty of non-alcoholic drinks on hand.

2.     Remember, America Is a Melting Pot

It’s easy to forget that not everyone celebrates the same holiday as you. Religious-themed parties that exclude alternate beliefs can be offensive and hurtful to excluded employees. Not to mention they could be construed as religious discrimination in violation of antidiscrimination laws. If you are going to celebrate one religion, celebrate them all. Or consider leaving religion out of it all together and simply throwing a ‘Holiday Party,’ or host your party after the holidays to avoid potential confusion.

3.     Sexual Harassment Is Sexual Harassment Is Sexual Harassment

The relaxed atmosphere of a party combined with drinking can lead to comments and actions which may be construed as harassment. Harassment that occurs off-site at a work-sponsored event is just as serious as harassment that occurs on-site. Remind employees that all work place rules still apply at the party. Brief managers beforehand to be on alert and to step in if they see potential harassment, and make sure you have a plan in place to handle violations beforehand. Consider inviting spouses and significant others. In addition to employees seeing you as a “family friendly” employer, the presence of significant others keeps employees on their best behavior.

4.     Mandatory Parties May Cost You

Office parties should always be voluntary. Requiring or even pressuring employees to attend invites Fair Labor Standards Act issues that employers should avoid. Mandatory attendance may require an employer to pay non-exempt employees for time spent at the party and even worker’s compensation in the event of an accident. Scheduling the party outside of office hours or on a weekend helps make clear that the party is not work-related.

5.     Handle Clients With Care

To invite clients or not to invite clients…. On one hand, parties can be a great marketing opportunity for a company. On the other hand, inviting clients places an additional set of pressures on both the company and employees. Party mishaps may have resounding consequences if clients are there to witness them, including loss of existing or potential business, not to mention legal liability if a client is injured. Additionally, requiring employees to mingle and network with clients may be considered working hours, raising the compensation concerns discussed above. Think carefully about whether your holiday party is the right environment for your clients, and maybe save the networking for another time.

6.     You’re Not Sound Until They’re Safe

The party’s over, it was a success, but you are not out of the liability-woods just yet. Employers have a responsibility to make sure that employees get home safely. Allowing, or even failing to stop, impaired employees from getting behind the wheel or leaving them to find their own ways home can equal serious liability for an employer. Consider providing your employees with a car service to ensure that every employee has a safe and easy way to get home. If your event is held out of town, consider providing hotel rooms for employees to rest and sober up. But remember that sexual harassment is still a risk. In fact, the risk may increase if employees are alone together away from the larger group, so make sure to offer each employee their own car and/or hotel room.

7.     Holiday Party Complaints Are Serious Business

Even the best laid plans are not fool-proof. Should employees raise complaints about holiday party behavior, take them seriously. Do not assume that the situation was “all in good fun” or that the complaint will blow over. Address any complaints immediately and head on. Being dismissive or unresponsive to party-related complaints is the surest way for an employer to find themselves in court or the target of bad publicity. Finally, legal liability differs across jurisdictions. Make sure you understand which regulations specifically apply to you.

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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