April 22, 2019

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Ho-Ho-Hold On Just A Second: Employer “Dos” and “Don’ts” for Holiday Parties

With the end of the year upon us, office holiday parties are likely just around the corner… or you may be at one right now with a cup of mulled cider in hand!  While these events often provide great opportunities to build camaraderie among employees and boost office morale, they can also serve as potential sources of liability for festive-minded employers.  From an inappropriate comment, to an unwelcome sexual advance, to an alcohol-induced argument or accident, we have seen it all.  For example, in Purton v. Marriott International, Inc., 218 Cal.App.4th 499 (2013), the California Court of Appeal held that an employer could be liable for the harm caused by an employee who, after becoming intoxicated at a work-related holiday party, got into a motor-vehicle accident with a third party.  And, as the Seventh Circuit noted in Place v. Abbott Laboratories, 215 F.3d 803, n.1 (7th Cir. 2000), “[O]ffice Christmas parties [ ] seem to be fertile ground for unwanted sexual overtures that lead to Title VII complaints.”

So, before you deck the halls of your workplace, see below for a few “Dos” and “Don’ts” to help you successfully navigate the potentially precarious office holiday party season.

Do:

  • Remind employees that all rules, expectations, and policies apply at the party, just as they would during any regular workday.  Make sure employees understand that just because the party may be held after regular working hours or at an off-site location, doesn’t mean that standards for appropriate behavior change or are somehow relaxed.

  • Monitor employee alcohol consumption.  If you opt to serve alcohol at your party, make sure to keep close tabs on the amount that employees consume.  One easy way to do this is by hiring a professional third-party server/bartender who is trained to identify when someone is drinking in excess and knows when to cut them off.  By relying upon professionals, you also avoid the potentially awkward situation of a co-worker having to tell a colleague that he/she has had too much.

  • Make sure employees have a safe way to get home.  Arranging for a complimentary taxi service may strike you as an unnecessary expense when planning the event, but the costs of defending against a “social host liability” claim can quickly put things into perspective.  Social host liability refers to the liability of a host who serves alcohol to a guest who becomes intoxicated and then injures himself/herself or a third party.

  • To that same end, check your insurance coverage for the event.  Social host liability laws vary from state-to-state.  Depending on your state’s laws, it may make sense to consider purchasing insurance coverage to protect against such liability.

Don’t:

  • Require attendance.  For whatever reason (including religious ones), certain employees may feel uncomfortable attending a “holiday” or end-of-year party. If you require attendance, you might be opening the door for a potential religious accommodation issue or even a claim that employees are entitled to compensation for the time they spent attending the party.

  • Incorporate religious symbols or imagery when decorating or naming your office party.  Consistent with the above recommendation regarding attendance, employers can avoid potential liability by keeping festivities religion-neutral and attendance strictly optional.

  • Hand out awards or bonuses at the party.  Holiday or end-of-year parties present a perfect opportunity to express gratitude for all of the hard work that employees have put into the company throughout the year.  However, by singling individuals out for recognition or additional compensation, you run the risk of alienating others and creating sources of conflict that may be exacerbated by the presence of alcohol.

  • Assume that your managers/supervisors will, as a matter of course, behave appropriately.  Anyone and everyone can succumb to the influence of the holiday spirit and/or alcohol.  Remind your managers and supervisors that, regardless of the occasion, they are still expected to set a good example for their co-workers and subordinates.

While by no means an exhaustive list, these “Dos” and “Don’ts” will hopefully provide some guidance as you prepare for an upcoming office holiday or end-of-year party. Best wishes for a safe, happy, and claims-free season!

© 2019 Schiff Hardin LLP

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Schiff Hardin represents management in labor matters and employment-related litigation, and provides counsel to employers with respect to all legal aspects of employer-employee relations. Our firm's labor law practice encompasses both the private sector and the public sector for large and small employers in a broad range of markets and industries. Our Labor and Employment Group works cooperatively with attorneys in our Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation Group to provide our clients with comprehensive assistance in every aspect of the employer-employee relationship.

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