How to Celebrate the Holidays without Ending Up in Court: Tips for Hosting a Corporate Holiday Party

Q.  Do you have any tips on how to ensure that our company holiday party does not lead to a new year liability?

A.  As the year comes to a close, many employers often celebrate with a holiday party as a way to thank employees for their contributions. The holiday party is meant to build comradery with co-workers, and provides an opportunity for all employees, management and non-management, to “let their hair down”.  A festive occasion however, can turn into a legal nightmare if employers fail to set expectations.  Everyone has heard stories of an employee (or two) having too much to drink at the holiday party and making an inappropriate joke, getting “touchy” with a co-worker, or getting into a car accident.  By following a few simple rules, employers can attempt to prevent such legal disasters.  Below are some suggestions to help ensure that your holiday party does not end up as the focus of a lawsuit.

  • Social Gathering Policy. If the company has a social gathering policy which details behavioral expectation in social settings, it should re-circulate this policy to all employees prior to the holiday party with a special note to address expectations with the respect to the upcoming holiday party. If the company does not have a social gathering party, this would be a good time to create one and send to all employees prior to the event. In lieu of a creating a social gathering policy, a company should, at a minimum, draft a memo or email to all employees encouraging them to attend the holiday party, but also reminding them of behavioral expectations, including but not limited to alcohol consumption, arranging for transportation, and the anti-harassment policy.
  • Have a Designee.   Employers may want to consider having a corporate designee, such as a Human Resources professional, attend as the sober “eyes and ears” of the party. If the designee sees or hears something inappropriate, he/she can try to temper the situation before it gets out of hand.
  • Control Alcohol Consumption.  A “dry” holiday party may have very limited attendance. When serving alcohol, however, the employer should consider whether to limit the alcohol to beer and wine. Even if the employer does not limit the alcohol to beer and wine, it should hire a licensed bartender who can identify any individuals that have had too much to drink, stop serving him/her alcohol and possibly alert the sober designee to ensure that the individual gets home safely. Another measure to control alcohol consumption is to close the bar prior to the end of the party, so that attendees have some time to “sober up.”
  • Make Sure People Get Home Safely. Arranging for car service for all employees may be an expense that employers are not willing to undertake, however, it should be strongly considered, especially in states like New Jersey, where a host that served or sold alcohol can be found liable for injuries sustained from an intoxicated driver.  If an employer is unable to pay for transportation for attendees, it may consider offering a stipend to cover some of the attendees’ transportation costs, or in the alternative, the employer can coordinate with a car share service to provide discounted transportation to attendees.
  • Make the Party Voluntary. A holiday party, especially one that occurs after working hours, should not be a mandatory event. An employer want to mandate participation to ensure employees attend.  However, when the event is after hours, this could potentially give rise to wage and hour claims. The best policy is to have voluntary attendance, which should be clearly communicated to all employees.
  • Promptly Investigate/Address Any Bad Behavior. Even after putting these procedures into place, there may still be one (or two) bad apples; likely someone who has had too much to drink and does or says something inappropriate. If this is the case, the employer should promptly investigate the allegations and take appropriate remedial action.
  • Follow-Up With Attendees. Finally, an employer may consider sending attendees a quick survey asking for feedback after the holiday party. This can serve two purposes: (1) if issues arose that the employer is unaware of, the attendee may share it via the survey and (2) if there is future litigation, it can be used as evidence to show that the employee never reported the incident.

 

Kali T. Wellington-James