Happy HolidaysIt is that time of the year again… the holiday season.  Time to celebrate!  Many employers throw festive holiday or year-end parties complete with food, alcohol and entertainment.  According to a Society of Human Resource Management Survey on Holiday/Year End Activities, in recent years about two-thirds of organizations have held holiday parties for their employees.  However, as we have pointed out in years past, sometimes holiday parties can create legal liability for the employer.  According to one recent study, about one in three employers reported some misconduct at holiday parties.  Below we provide a few tips to minimize the potential for a new year legal hangover.

If the party is going to be off-site, as about 60% of them are, choose an appropriate venue and entertainment for your organization.  This may sound obvious, but avoid the local dive bar or franchise known for scantily-clad servers.  Avoid controversial entertainment such as MCs, comedians or music with vulgar language or messages that some employees may find offensive.  Also, mistletoe is an invitation for harassment claims, so avoid mistletoe as decoration.

The relaxed atmosphere and eat, drink and be merry attitude at holiday parties make it more likely that employees will feel less inhibited than they normally do.  Employees tend to dress more provocatively than usual.  Employees may over-indulge in alcohol consumption. Employees may feel more comfortable making inappropriate or off-color remarks about the appearance, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or religion of others.  An employee may feel emboldened to make a sexual advance towards another employee that may or may not be wanted.  All of these things could lead to claims of harassment, discrimination or even injuries to employees or other third parties.

For these reasons, before the party, consider taking the time to remind employees of the employer’s policies on alcohol and drugs, harassment and discrimination, and workplace violence, as well as dress code and relationship policies.  Employees should be advised that these policies apply at the holiday party which is an employer-sponsored event and that misconduct at the party in violation of these policies could result in discipline.  In addition, supervisors and managers should be reminded of their reporting obligations with respect to harassment, discrimination and workplace violence.  If any misconduct is reported, it should be promptly investigated.

Not surprisingly, excessive alcohol consumption is often related to holiday party misconduct. Intoxicated employees have impaired judgment.  So, if you choose to serve alcohol at the holiday party, consider taking the following steps in planning the party to minimize risk of misconduct or injury.

  • Hire professional bartenders who are trained to deal with serving guests who may be excessively consuming alcohol.  Don’t make an employee responsible for serving drinks.
  • Consider serving beer and wine and avoiding hard alcohol.
  • Consider having a drink ticket system or cash bar to limit alcohol consumption.
  • Avoid spiked punch or mixed alcoholic beverages that disguise the amount of alcoholic content in each drink.
  • Serve food containing starches or protein to slow alcohol absorption.
  • Make non-alcoholic beverages available and stop serving alcohol well before the party-goers will be leaving the party.
  • Designate a supervisor or manager (who is exempt under the FLSA) to provide discrete oversight over employees during the party.
  • Advise employees who intend to drink to do so responsibly and plan for safe transportation home. Encourage use of cabs, designated drivers and, if possible, consider providing transportation for employees who have been drinking.

Taking steps to plan an appropriate holiday party can go a long way towards minimizing risk of liability so that everyone can enjoy this wonderful time of year.