By Robert J. Nobile and Johanna T. Wise
‘Tis the season for office holiday parties! As companies across the country are busy planning their annual parties, keep in mind that too much eggnog can sometimes result in employer liability. Particularly when alcohol is involved and inhibitions are down, employers can be a target for litigation if things go awry.
Even when attendance is not mandatory, company sponsored parties are generally considered extensions of an employee’s job, and potential claims can arise involving allegations of sexual harassment, workers’ compensation, and negligence if an employee is injured during or after the event.
While you should think twice about hanging mistletoe, there’s no need to pack up the holiday decorations. Company parties provide a great opportunity to let your employees know they’re appreciated. They can also increase morale and help build camaraderie among team members.
So, don’t be a Grinch! Instead, consider these tips to minimize your organization’s exposure to legal liability and, more importantly, prevent an undesirable incident from occurring at your office holiday party:
- Prior to the party, circulate a memo to reiterate your company’s policy against sexual and other forms of harassment.
- Remind employees in the memo that the policy applies to their conduct at company parties and other social events, and they should act in a professional manner at all times.
- Set a tone of moderation by reminding employees of the company’s policy against the abuse of alcohol and zero tolerance with respect to the possession, use, or sale of illegal drugs.
- Ensure your dress code prohibits any form of revealing or provocative attire, and remind employees that the policy applies at company-sponsored events.
- If appropriate, allow employees to invite a spouse or their children to the party. Many employees might think twice about their actions if spouses and/or children are present.
- Consider limiting the number of alcoholic drinks or the time during which alcohol will be served. In either case, stop serving alcohol well before the party ends.
- Serve food at the party so employees are not consuming alcohol on an empty stomach.
- Make sure there are plenty of non-alcoholic alternatives available.
- Host the party at a restaurant or hire a caterer. Remind bartenders that they are not permitted to serve anyone who appears to be impaired or intoxicated and to notify a particular company representative if anyone appears to be impaired.
- Attempt to include indemnification/hold harmless clauses in your contract with the restaurant, caterer or other venue that they will indemnify your company in the event of an action by a third party that is brought in connection with the party.
- Remind managers to set a professional example, and designate several managers to be on the lookout for anyone who appears to be impaired or intoxicated.
- Anticipate the need for alternative transportation and don’t allow employees who have been drinking heavily to drive home. If an employee appears to be heavily intoxicated, have a manager drive the employee home or ride with the employee in a cab to ensure he/she gets home safely.
- Check your insurance policies to ensure they cover the company adequately, including any accidents or injuries that arise out of a company party or event.
- Promptly investigate any complaints that are made after the party, and take any necessary remedial action for conduct that violates company policy.
Holiday parties provide an opportunity to give thanks, show appreciation for your employees’ hard work throughout the year, and recognize past achievements. Plan ahead with these tips to minimize any post-party headaches and ensure your office holiday party is a success.
For additional information about limiting liability at your company party, please click here to check out a recent article by Robert J. Nobile and Howard M. Wexler that was published in HR Advisor: Legal and Practical Guidance, or contact a member of Seyfarth’s Workplace Policies and Handbooks Team.
We wish you a safe and happy holiday season!