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OP-ED Avoiding the pitfalls of office holiday parties

With the holiday season upon us, many employers are thinking of ways to celebrate with their employees. One way of doing so is with a holiday party, which can boost morale and show gratitude for the year’s hard work. But holiday parties are not without their pitfalls. If employers are not careful, a holiday party can turn into an employment-related disaster and create potential areas of liability.

With the holiday season upon us, many employers are thinking of ways to celebrate with their employees. One way of doing so is with a holiday party, which can boost morale and show gratitude for the year’s hard work. But holiday parties are not without their pitfalls. If employers are not careful, a holiday party can turn into an employment-related disaster and create potential areas of liability. 

A holiday party may be one of the rare times when all employees socialize outside of the office and interact in a less-formal setting. While the employer will certainly want to encourage everyone to have a good time, it is important to emphasize that employee policies do not fall by the wayside just because they leave the office. Employees should be reminded that workplace policies such as anti-harassment policies remain in full effect even at an employer-sponsored social function outside of the workplace. 

A gentle reminder of the employer’s expectations can be added to the invitation. It is particularly important to reiterate such policies to managers or supervisors who are expected to lead by example and whose inappropriate conduct can be the most problematic for creating liability.

This may also be a time to consider revising existing policies. Perhaps the current policy does not address issues that can arise outside of the workplace. Updating policies would also provide a good excuse to redistribute them to all employees to coincide with the holiday party. Alternatively, employers may want to consider scheduling harassment training around this time. It is a good idea to have harassment training each year, and it makes perfect sense to schedule that training around a time when it may be needed the most. 

What happens when [an] employee says something offensive or goes to drive home after hours of drinking? What may at first seem silly and fun can quickly turn into a liability nightmare.

 

In addition to concerns about employee policies, it is important for the employer to create an inclusive environment. Many employers have employees with diverse backgrounds who may not all celebrate one particular holiday. A celebration of the holiday season generally, may be more appropriate than a specific holiday. This is not a matter of political correctness, but rather is to ensure that everyone feels welcome and included in the celebration. Some suggestions are to have a “winter” theme, or if your holiday party is closer to New Year’s Eve it can be an end-of-the-year celebration. Creating a party with a more inclusive theme also means eliminating religious decorations such as Christmas trees or Menorahs.

Employers should make clear that attendance at the holiday party is voluntary. There are any number of reasons why an employee may not want to attend the holiday party, and they should not feel that their failure to attend would have negative consequences for their employment. Moreover, there are legal implications to mandatory attendance like requirements that the employees be paid or potential workers’ compensation claims if an employee is injured at the party. There is no reason for attendance to be mandatory.     

While the vast majority of holiday parties will be without incident and enjoyable, employers should consider the potential liability impact of hosting an event where alcohol will be served. The stories are legend of the normally reserved, quiet employee who after a couple of drinks suddenly loses his inhibitions and becomes the hit of the party. However, what happens when that employee says something offensive or goes to drive home after hours of drinking? What may at first seem silly and fun can quickly turn into a liability nightmare.

There are, however, ways that employers can reduce the risk of liability short of scrapping the holiday party altogether. They include the following:

1. Hire a properly insured vendor that will provide bartenders who are trained to identify and stop serving alcohol to employees who are drinking excessively. Look closely at the contract with the vendor to see if there are provisions regarding the responsibility for serving alcohol.

2. Eliminate the “open bar” and consider limiting the number of drinks consumed by employees by issuing drink tickets that once used, require employees to pay for their drinks.

3. Serve only beer and wine instead of hard alcohol, which is easier to overconsume and seems to be at the root of many holiday party incidents.

4. Reduce the risk of employees getting into their cars under the influence by offering to pay for taxis or an Uber to get employees home.

5. Remind managers that they are expected to act responsibly and watch for anyone who may seem to have had one too many.

Although there is no way to eliminate risk, an employer can certainly reduce it by adopting some of these practices. The key is for employers to operate with the understanding that a holiday party is an extension of the workplace, and is not a purely social gathering. This idea should be imparted on the employees as well. Holiday parties can still be fun. With a little advance planning, they can also be liability-free.

Wayne E. Pinkstone and Jonathan D. Ash are partners in the Labor and Employment Department at the law firm Fox Rothschild LLP in its Princeton office. In their practice, they work with clients in a variety of industries to identify and solve legal issues in the workplace.

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