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Employer-sponsored holiday parties

December 3, 2015

It’s the time of year when many employers host or sponsor holiday parties, and many employees look forward to the festivities as a chance to socialize with friends from work. But before getting caught up in other year-end tasks like balancing the books, Human Resources professionals and attorneys in the General Counsel’s office should keep in mind a few helpful rules of the road. Below are some basic suggestions for how to reduce potential liability and administrative headaches during this year’s merrymaking:

A Mandatory Party is Not a Party: Not only does it not help morale much if the office holiday party is compulsory, it has consequences under the wage and hour laws. If an office function is mandatory, that looks an awful lot like an extension of the job—and if time is spent on the job, it translates into additional wages for hourly employees, plus potential workers compensation liability if someone is injured at the party. Make the party optional, and have sign-ins or RSVPs submitted to administrative staff and made invisible to other employees. In the same vein, managers shouldn’t send out messages describing the party as a boon to anyone’s career goals or as a potential basis for networking. Same goes for gift exchanges – if an employee wants to opt in, no harm done, but no one should be penalized for declining to participate.

Just Like with Politics, Don’t Talk Religion: When it comes to the holiday party, a good rule of thumb is that if it would not be appropriate to promote religion at the office, do not promote it at the party. Employees have a wide range of potential religious sensibilities, and there’s little to be gained and a lot to be lost under employment anti-discrimination statutes from making a company function expressly tied to a religion or denomination. Similarly, do not have the company require donations to particular charities or organizations, and keep any company holiday cards or messages generic.

Eat More, Drink Less, and Be Merry: To avoid liability on a variety of fronts, have plenty of catered food from a licensed caterer available and impose some common sense restraints on the amount and type of alcohol served. Using a caterer will help address liability concerns if the food makes anyone sick, since caterers typically carry insurance. Having the bar staff actively limit alcohol consumption using drink tickets and/or monitoring whether anyone appears over-served will also help address “dram shop” tort liability or workers compensation liability in the event an employee’s yuletide exuberance has some unpleasant consequences for themselves or third parties.

The Holidays Should Remind Us to Look Out for One Another: Employers can go a long way toward avoiding sexual harassment liability or other types of tort or employment-law liability if they remind their employees about company policies on harassment, bullying, violations of etiquette, and other types of prohibited behavior before holiday events where alcohol is served, and then enforce those rules. A holiday party is a great way to boost employee morale – but only if every employee at the party ends the night having been treated with courtesy and respect, and that has the added benefit of dramatically reducing the odds of a complaint to Human Resources or a lawsuit.

If you have questions about this or other Labor and Employment matters, please contact one of Honigman's Labor and Employment attorneys.

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