Ten Tips for Litigation-Free Holiday Celebrations

Company parties are ripe for claims of liability, discrimination and harassment.

Posted Nov 26, 2018

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Tis the season to be jolly, but not uninformed.  While many people enjoy holiday celebrations, the typical office gathering is solid ground for potential misbehavior and possible legal liability for both employees and their organizations. Contrary to the beliefs of some, an office party in most respects is no different in the eyes of the law than any other day in the office. Negligent employers are routinely sued for failing to recognize the potential of a party to result in litigation. Employees should also realize that company policy and appropriate workplace behavior extend to any type of event outside the work location, including holiday festivities.

Motivating employees to attend the holiday gathering is usually unnecessary but some may attend for reasons beyond camaraderie or team-building.  Take these ten steps to enhance morale, but also to potentially avoid the dark side of holiday celebrations.  Keep in mind this information is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and should not be relied upon to determine what laws apply in your jurisdiction. Consult the Department of Labor website for information on compensating employees for party attendance and to learn which laws apply to your organization if an employee is hurt while attending an off-site celebration.

Some employees must be paid to attend.  Even if party participation is voluntary, employees paid on an hourly basis must be compensated for their party time.  Individuals in positions “exempt” from federal wage and hour laws (most professionals and managers) do not require payment. If there is a lag time between the end of the workday and the start of the party, compensation is not required during the break time.

Harassment laws cover office celebrations.  Regardless of if the celebration is held during business hours on normal work premises or at another location outside the typical workplace, it doesn’t mean that touching, groping, or sexual innuendo is permissible. The same rules that apply in the workplace apply to any sponsored company event regardless if participation is voluntary or mandatory. 

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Know and make known company policy. Make sure employees know workplace substance abuse policy and that the policy addresses the use of alcoholic beverages in any work-related situation and office social function. Use all communication methods to disseminate policy. Before an office party, use bulletin boards, e-mail and company intranet to communicate and learn about policy and prospective employee concerns.

Reinvent the office party concept. Why have the typical office party? Try something new like an indoor carnival, group outing to an entertainment event, or volunteer activity with a local charity. Consider planning a breakfast celebration that discounts the expectation that alcohol will be served.

Make sure employees know when to say when. If you do serve alcohol at a sponsored party, make sure all employees know that they are welcome to attend and have a good time, but that they are expected to act responsibly. The party is not an excuse to act inappropriately or any different than a typical workday.

Make it the office party of choice. Make sure there are plenty of non-alcoholic beverages available. Survey employees beforehand to get an accurate count of beverage expectations and consider limiting consumption using a ticket system.

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Eat...and be merry! Avoid serving lots of salty, greasy or sweet foods which tend to make people thirsty. Serve foods rich in starch and protein which stay in the stomach longer and slow the absorption of alcohol in the bloodstream. 

Designate party managers. Remind managers that even at the office party, they may need to implement the company's alcohol and substance abuse policy. Ask for volunteers who agree to not consume any alcohol as a prerequisite for supervising the event.

Arrange alternative transportation. Anticipate the need for alternative transportation for all party goers and make special transportation arrangements in advance of the party. Encourage or require all employees to make use of alternative transportation if they consume any alcohol.

Slidebot/Used with permission
Source: Slidebot/Used with permission

Serve none for the road. Stop serving alcohol at least one hour before the party officially ends.  Implement a check out system to evaluate the degree of sobriety when attendees leave the event. 

If alcoholic beverages are provided at office social functions, state laws regarding their use and resulting legal responsibilities should be consulted and addressed. Remember, the company can be held liable for post-party behavior and huge awards and compensatory damages have been levied against employers found negligent.

Happy Holidays!