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Part II – Employer Liability at Office Holiday Parties – Beyond Sexual Harassment

Posted in Human Resources (HR) Compliance

Yesterday, I talked about issue spotting for holiday parties.  But what are some pro-active steps an employer can take? Well, there is no "one size fits all" approach.  Drink - courtesy FSPHere are some suggestions to ponder that may fit for a particular employer.

To Drink or Not to Drink

  • Since alcohol can be tied to many of the issues arising from the holiday party, the obvious suggestion is to not serve alcohol.  If you do, consider sending a message related to the holiday party that excessive drinking will not be tolerated. 
  • Schedule the event at a restaurant or bar whose liability insurance would cover the event. 
  • Arrange to have alternate transportation available to guests who do drink too much.  Offering a taxi or car service home is much cheaper than having to deal with an employee’s car accident later on. 
  • Use a cash bar or tickets that limit the number of drinks to which each employee is entitled. An open bar — particularly before it turns into a cash bar — only invites binge drinking.
  • Consider serving just beer and wine; if your party serves tequila shots, for example, there will tend to be faster drinking than if done through beer and wine. 
  • Do not skimp on food. There can be a tendency to under order for appetizers, etc, for cost purposes. However, high-protein foods, like cheese and meats, help slow the absorption of alcohol and keep guests from drinking on an empty stomach. 
  • Make sure the people serving alcohol know that they can refuse service to anyone who appears intoxicated.  Designate some company employees (human resources, perhaps) to act as "scanners" to scan the crowd occasionally and make sure guests are behaving appropriately. 

Other Than Alcohol…

  • Invite spouses and family members, or clients or customers. Their presence will encourage employees to be on their best behavior and may minimize the chances of excessive drinking and inappropriate sexual conduct.
  • Daytime (lunch) events work better than night events.  Consider linking it to another activity so the party (and drinking) isn’t the sole focus. 
  • Attendance at the party should be strictly voluntary and managers should be instructed not to suggest that  attendance will benefit a person’s standing within the company.
  • To address any religious considerations of employees, consider scheduling the party during the week (Monday through Thursday).  Similarly, the holiday party should be just that — a holiday party — and not tied to any particular religion.  
  • Lastly, if any complaints (of sexual harassment or otherwise) are made at or after the party, the employer should take prompt, effective steps to address the complaint.  If an employee who complains at a party about inappropriate behavior, it may be necessary to address the issue then and there.

There are, of course, countless other ways to reinvent the holiday party.  I’m certainly not advocating eliminating it.  But being a little more cautious about the party helps keep a fun occasion from turning into a hangover headache.

As always, employers who have specific legal questions, should seek the appropriate legal counsel. The ideas listed above are just some examples of issues for employers to consider as they approach their holiday party. 

  • http://www.paemploymentlawblog.com/ Michael Moore

    I like your list of ideas to structure the holiday event, but I have one more. Employers should take special precautions to make sure that employees/guests under 21 are not served alcohol because this is an area where the most serious liability can arise. Precautions should prevent the direct service or purchase of alcohol and the indirect provision by co-workers and managers.

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