Employers – Be Careful with Holiday Party Planning to Minimize Potential Liability

It’s that time of year again. The weather has turned cold, the year is almost over, and it is now time for those year-end company-sponsored holiday parties. These parties are an excellent tool to bring good times, seasonal cheer, and the much-needed break in the workday to your employees. These holiday parties, however, raise employment issues that all employers need to consider prior to kicking off the holiday celebrations.

Here is some advice for employers from Leech Tishman’s Employment Practice Group on avoiding employment grievances stemming from your holiday parties:

• Plan ahead – Make sure you pick a venue and atmosphere that is right for your organization. Be sure the venue is work-appropriate and conducive to a professional atmosphere. As a general rule, chose a place where you would be comfortable bringing a client or customer. The local night club may not be the best place to host your professional holiday gathering.

• Keep religion out of the party – Consider using terms such as “Holiday Party,” “Seasonal Gathering,” “Winter Celebration,” or “End-of-the-Year Get Together.” Employers should also avoid using decorations with a religious-theme. Some employees do not have any religious affiliation and do not celebrate any of the December holidays. Therefore, in order to avoid offending an employee or group of employees, keep religion out of the party.

• Brief employees on party policies – Just because employees are gathering out of the office, does not mean they are not “at work.” Employers should review policies on issues such as harassment, retaliation, workplace violence, alcohol use, safety issues, and dress code. Be sure to remind employees that all the rules of the workplace apply to the holiday party. Supervisors and managers should also be briefed, and employees should know which members of management will be present at the party and be “on-duty.” Employers should also ensure managers know how to react and handle any party-related complaints or inappropriate behavior they might observe. Also, remind employees that this is not time to exchange “gag” gifts which many find to be offensive.

• Plan ahead for alcohol – As a general rule, employers should not serve alcohol at holiday parties, and we at Leech Tishman certainly don’t recommend it. If you have decided to serve alcohol at your party, however, be sure to plan ahead because employers can face liability for its employees’ actions if the employer provided the alcohol. Here are some tips to help avoid alcohol-related liability:

• Employers should not have an open bar at any employee gathering. Consider having a ticket system or a cash bar. This will help limit employees’ alcohol intake at the party.

• Do not serve hard liquor – If you are going to serve alcohol at your party, limit the choices to beer and wine. Also, make sure there are more than enough non-alcoholic beverages available.

• Ensure your employees can get home from the party. For instance, consider providing cab fare, designated drivers, or a car or shuttle service, to ensure employees make it home safely.

• Hire a professional bartender and make sure he or she checks IDs to prevent underage drinking. Bartenders can also be useful in determining when someone has had too much to drink.

• Consider hosting your holiday party during lunchtime or in the office. This will also help limit employees’ alcohol consumption.

• Keep the entertainment clean, professional, and non-controversial – This is not the time to embarrass co-workers with unflattering slideshows, hire a vulgar comedian, or hire a DJ to play religiously slanted holiday music.

• Most importantly – No Mistletoe.

Most of these tips seem like common sense, however, when people start to celebrate, common sense may be the last thing on their mind. Therefore, it is best for employers to prepare in advance to help shield themselves from any potential liability related to their holiday parties.

Leech Tishman’s Employment Practice Group has experience handling workplace legal issues which could arise at an employer-sponsored holiday party and are happy to help you prepare for and take steps to limit potential liability arising from your holiday party.

Please feel free to contact the Employment Group with any questions regarding legal issues to consider when planning employer-sponsored functions or any other employment law issue.

Leech Tishman is a firm dedicated to providing full-service commercial legal services to individuals, businesses, and institutions. We combine a deep understanding of our clients’ and their businesses with skilled legal counsel to find solutions. We offer legal services in alternative dispute resolution, bankruptcy & creditors’ rights, construction, corporate, employment, energy, environmental, safety & toxic torts, estates & trusts, government relations, insurance coverage & corporate risk mitigation, litigation, real estate, and taxation. For more information call 412.261.1600 or visit www.leechtishman.com.