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Lawyer Prepare employees to avoid holiday party-related lawsuits

Jessica Perry//December 16, 2011

Lawyer Prepare employees to avoid holiday party-related lawsuits

Jessica Perry//December 16, 2011

Office holiday parties are often the stuff lawsuits are made of. When there is too much drinking, people can let their guard down — flirting, telling inappropriate jokes, using foul language or buying distasteful gag gifts.

Office holiday parties are often the stuff lawsuits are made of. When there is too much drinking, people can let their guard down — flirting, telling inappropriate jokes, using foul language or buying distasteful gag gifts.

“People tend to think they’re not in the workplace anymore,” said Rosemary Gousman, managing partner at Fisher & Phillips, in the Murray Hill section of New Providence. “Even though it is a social event, it is still a work or business-related function. The company’s rules of respect, non-harassment and non-discrimination still apply at the party.”

Gousman said at Fisher & Phillips, a national employment and labor law firm, she handles multiple cases each year that stem from holiday parties.

“There is liability if employees are drinking and get into an accident on the way home,” she said. “Many companies now hire a professional bartender — someone to monitor the drinking. Companies are better off serving only wine and beer. You definitely should never serve shots at a party.”

Women also should be mindful of their attire.

“You shouldn’t wear tight-fitting or provocative clothing,” she said. “You don’t want to wear clothing that would make your co-workers think of you as more of a sex object than a serious businessperson. Men have it easy in that respect.”

Employees should limit their drinking and refrain from treating the office party like a singles bar. After all, workplace romances — or worse, one-night-stands — can be disastrous.

Gousman said she’s heard it all, from sexual gag gifts to distasteful ethnic jokes, off-color speeches and physical fights. She suggests supervisors remain in that role at the party.

“If you’re a supervisor, you’re a supervisor even when you’re out socializing with employees,” she said. “Jokes that you tell or any kind of touching, that can all come back to haunt you.”

Gousman knew of a female supervisor who was sued by a male subordinate. The supervisor said she innocently pecked everyone on the cheek as they left, but he alleged she kissed him passionately. Many companies are sending out a list of conduct rules employees can familiarize themselves with before the party. This can prevent lawsuits, such as the one filed by an employee after a manager told an off-color joke at a party.

Companies should also carefully consider the location of the event. Gousman knew of a holiday party in Las Vegas that was held at a venue where a wet T-shirt contest also was taking place.

“They had to cancel the party,” she said. “You want to have it someplace where everyone is comfortable.”

Gousman said if employees are too drunk to drive and end up staying in a hotel, they can even open themselves up to potential sexual assault charges.

“Companies are much better off if they invite spouses or significant others,” Gousman said. “People are on much better behavior. There is not as much risk of employees drinking too much and hitting on co-workers.”

Of course, employees should only bring a guest if they are sure that person will behave appropriately, too.

“It’s not a good idea to bring a van with a mattress in the back, and then invite people inside,” Gousman said. “I did hear that one many years ago.”

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