Avoid decking halls with holiday party litigation
Last Updated: 16:30 December 6, 2013
Rudolph the red-nosed receptionist takes to the wheel.
Office parties typically mean lots of music, food and drinks. If the drinks include alcohol, however, the office party may lead to unfortunate consequences.
Opinions vary about alcoholic beverages at office parties, where the employer sponsors the opportunity to imbibe. The only certain way to avoid liability for alcohol-related accidents is to ensure that alcohol is not available at the holiday party. This includes letting employees know they are not to bring any alcoholic beverages.
If alcohol is served, however, ignoring the possibility that some guests may drive home "under the influence" invites trouble and exposes employers to liability under tort, workers' compensation and other laws. The following are some suggested measures for minimizing the legal risk:
Limit sponsored alcohol intake by providing each employee a limited number of drink tickets.
Make nonalcoholic beverages available and serve food, especially food rich in starch and protein, which will slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.
Instruct the hosting facility to check IDs and refuse service to anyone under the age of 21 and anyone who has had too much to drink.
Pre-arrange alternative transportation, such as taxis and/or a designated-driver system, or arrange for an inexpensive hotel room rate for employees who may wish to book a room to spend the night.
Stop serving alcohol before the party ends.
It is also a good idea to designate someone, preferably a supervisor, to refrain from drinking and to monitor the party for purposes of curtailing excessive alcohol consumption. Finally, you may want to consider holding your party earlier in the day or on a weeknight when employees may be less likely to overindulge.
You see Santa kissing ... Mary from accounting?
While holiday parties can be a great opportunity for employees to unwind and celebrate, they also present plenty of opportunity for harassment claims. As one federal Court of Appeals noted, "Office Christmas parties are a fertile ground for unwanted sexual overtures that lead to Title VII complaints."
The secret to an HR hangover-free party should already exist in your company's anti-harassment policy, and it's not too late to revise your existing policy and/or create a new one. Employees should be reminded of your policy, and its application to the holiday party. Employees should understand that just because misconduct occurs off-site or after hours does not mean it is acceptable. If a complaint arises, the company should carefully investigate and respond to it. In addition:
Make sure supervisors understand that they will be considered "on duty" at the party and that they are not to attend any "post-parties." Remind them that they must respond appropriately to any concerns raised regarding behavior that occurs during the party.
Keep an eye out for employees who have had too much to drink. Alcohol that is consumed at holiday parties often leads employees to make sexual comments that they typically would not utter at the office.
No mistletoe. Some people may think this is funny, but mistletoe and gag gifts (such as lingerie and sex toys) have lead to more litigation than you can imagine.
A few final thoughts
Admittedly, we sound like Scrooge. But, keep in mind that it's important not just to your company, but also your employees, to provide guidelines to avoid creating an opportunity for someone to make a choice he or she will regret later. It may also be a good idea to review your insurance policy and confirm coverage for holiday party events. If coverage is not included, you may want to consider a separate policy for the party or a rider to your existing policy.
Best wishes for a safe and lawsuit-free holiday season!
Attorney Alyssa Burghardt leads the school law section at Caplan and Earnest in Boulder. She can be reached at 303-443-8010 or email@example.com.
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