Happy Holidays: You’ve Been Served!

With the holiday season approaching, many companies are planning their company-sponsored holiday party. While the holiday party is a great way to reward employees for their hard work during the preceding year, these type of events can also lead to unwanted human resource complaints and lawsuits. Now is the time to assess your company’s upcoming holiday party and avoid potential legal issues that may arise, such as sexual harassment complaints, discrimination complaints, drunk-driving accidents and inappropriate pictures and/or videos uploaded to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube.

Despite the party atmosphere, holiday parties are still a work-sponsored event, which means that the potential for employer liability remains. Thus, it’s not surprising that holiday party-related lawsuits have followed. What we have learned from these lawsuits and claims, however, can prove useful in curtailing future problems/liability.

  • CURB THE CONSUMPTION! Quite obviously, the easiest way to limit liability is to avoid serving alcohol, as alcohol + employee(s) can = disaster. However, we all know this may not be a realistic option. Therefore, consider avoiding the free-flowing open bar and charging for drinks or using a ticket system (although, be mindful of the fact that employees still manage to “hoard” tickets from their non-drinking colleagues). Consider only offering wine and beer—avoiding hard alcohol and the ensuing shots. Have non-alcoholic beverages available and serve food. Provide alternative transportation or shuttle service to take employees home.
  • GO OFF-SITE. This, depending on jurisdiction, may help limit any vicarious liability for accidents. Also, it will allow for professional bartenders to serve the alcohol. Never allow an employee to serve the alcohol. Make sure all bartenders are instructed to check IDs and cut off any employee that appears to be intoxicated.
  • REMIND EMPLOYEES OF THE RULES. Any harassment or conduct that occurs at an off-site company-sponsored event has the same implication as if it occurred on-site during working hours. Therefore, remind employees that the workplace rules and standards of conduct still apply at the holiday party and that all social media policies that are still in effect. Also, make sure all managers keep an eye out for subordinates and ensure all polices are enforced. Remind employees of the company complaint reporting procedure. Be prepared to fully investigate any and all complaints about holiday party (mis)behavior.
  • HOLIDAY PARTIES SHOULD NOT BE MANDATORY. Make sure that all employees are aware that attendance at any company-sponsored holiday party is voluntary. Do not pressure or require employees to attend. Otherwise, you may run afoul of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • NO RELIGIOUS DESGINATIONS/THEMES. Not all employees celebrate the same holidays. Either celebrate all religions or do not celebrate any religions. Failure to include or exclusions of certain religious beliefs is not only hurtful, but may also trigger a religious discrimination lawsuit. For this reason, keep the party secular (this means no mistletoe—you are just asking for trouble there anyway) and refer to the party as a “Holiday Party” or “End of the Year Party.”

Be smart, use common-sense and be prepared!

Cruser & Mitchell’s labor and employment practice can answer your questions about how to limit potential liability and make for a prosperous, litigation-free year.