It’s tradition for business owners to invite employees to share a little holiday cheer each December. Company parties can be a great way for employers to make employees feel appreciated and for people to relax, get to know each other, and share the joys of the season. However, it’s also important to be familiar with the legal liabilities associated with hosting a business party so you can avoid potential problems and possibly even lawsuits.

Spreading Holiday Cheer

Imagine this simple scenario:  During the annual company holiday party, as you sip another glass of champagne, you notice the cutie from marketing standing dangerously close to the mistletoe. What’s your risk?

If you’re a business owner, the answer is “plenty.”

Such scenarios can be fraught with danger for employers. Company holiday parties are subject to the normal “social host laws” that will hold them liable for drunken guests who create mayhem or worse. However, these annual shindigs may also be facilitating sexual harassment.

Is it Your Responsibility?

When you serve alcohol at a holiday party, you are taking responsibility for your guests’ consumption of that alcohol. In many states, if a host serves alcohol to a guest who is already drunk, the host becomes liable if that guest then drives drunk and causes damage or injury. So, how can you limit the danger to your business when you are serving drinks?

How to Protect Your Business

How do you ensure that you don’t get hit with a workplace lawsuit after an office holiday party? Unfortunately, business owners need to think in terms of risk when planning fun events for their employees.   That is a symptom of our litigious society. The following tips may help business owners prevent lawsuits resulting from holiday parties.

  1. Advise employees to be responsible. Include a statement on the party invitation and/or circulate a written reminder to all concerned on their responsibilities to drink in moderation and to avoid driving after drinking.
  2. Emphasize to company leaders – at all levels – that they must lead by example.
  3. Have the party offsite. If problems do arise, it is better that they occur away from the business premises. Depending on the state, the liability will generally be on the restaurant or event space rather than the company. However, it is not unusual for an employer to be named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit if an intoxicated employee leaves any company-sponsored event and injures himself or herself or another person as a result of alcohol consumption at the party.
  4. Hire bartenders: Even if you have an open bar, it is better to have someone such as a bartender dispensing the alcoholic drinks. Instruct bartenders as to when to limit alcoholic service. That way, gatekeepers limit the access to the alcohol and can prevent inebriated people from further imbibing.
  5. If you do furnish alcoholic beverages, consider a drink voucher system to limit the number of drinks served. Or, serve alcohol for only a short period of time.
  6. Offer non-alcoholic beverages and always serve food. It is proven that food can help counter the effects of alcohol, but don’t use food service as an excuse to serve more alcohol.
  7. Do not serve alcohol to minors. No exceptions here.
  8. Stop serving alcohol toward the end of the evening and switch to coffee, tea and soft drinks.
  9. Arrange alternative transportation. Anticipate the need for alternative transportation for all employees and guests and make special transportation arrangements in advance of the party. Encourage all employees and guests to make use of the alternative transportation if they consume any alcohol. Uber and Lyft are exceptionally valuable for just such occasions.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can come in many forms. The annual holiday party can provide a perfect environment for most of them. By combining a relaxed, party atmosphere and alcohol, your holiday festivities can quickly erode inhibitions. What can you do to prevent sexual harassment at your winter shindig?

  • Remind everyone of your sexual harassment policies: Before the party, communicate clearly to people of your sexual harassment policies. Let them know that the policies apply to events outside of the routine 9-5 environment. Remind supervisors of the rules and what to do if they witness or hear of potential harassment.
  • Have a dress code: Suggest a dress code for the party that keeps things professional. Avoiding provocative dress can alleviate some forms of harassment.
  • Host a family event: Instead of limiting your party attendees to employees, invite their spouses and/or families. Consider inviting clients or business partners as well. The presence of non-employees may help keep the event appropriate.
  • Avoid some traditions: While mistletoe may be your favorite decoration of the season, inviting employees to kiss really doesn’t belong in the office. Avoid anything that could contribute to an environment of harassment.

Entertain your employees, families and clients, but be prudent and cautious.

If a problem arises, contact Miller & Wynn.