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Avoiding Litigation at Your Holiday Party

The company holiday party is a beloved tradition on the American business scene. But, unless you want to wake up on Christmas morning with a lawsuit waiting under the tree, how you plan, organize and conduct your office party must take into consideration these seven important criteria.

  1. Attendance Must Be Voluntary – Requiring employees to attend an afterhours event can lead to multiple problems. Employees may expect to be paid for the extra time they spend at a work-related event. An employee who is harmed or injured at an event held outside of the normal work day may not be covered by workers’ compensation. An employee’s religious beliefs many not coincide with the traditional American holiday. All point to giving employees a choice about attending the party.
  2. Consider Inviting Spouses and Significant Others. – The presence of significant others helps to keep employees on their best behavior. Having wives, husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends, or even children at a holiday party will help to tone things down. Do not discriminate against any couple or pairing. Plus, it employees may see you as a more “family friendly” employer.
  3. Impose a Strict Sexual Harassment Policy – A relaxed party atmosphere combined with alcohol consumption can result in comments and actions which may be considered sexual harassment.  Harassment which occurs at a work-sponsored event – whether at the office or at an outside venue – cannot be tolerated. Employees should be reminded that all work place rules also apply at the party. Managers should be alert and step in if they see potential harassment, and make sure you have a plan in place to handle violations beforehand. 
  4. Control the Flow of Alcohol – Alcohol-related issues are perhaps the most common, and potentially the most damaging, problems at a holiday party. Issues can range from drunk driving accidents, to sexual harassment, to underage drinking. Put a lid on alcohol consumption by distributing a limited number of drink tickets, and avoid having an “open bar” where employees may feel free to imbibe beyond their normal limits. Serving only beer and wine and avoiding hard liquor can also help curtail drunkenness. If the party is held on-site, do not allow employees to pour drinks for other employees – hire a professional bartender. Better yet, hold the party off-site and shift the responsibility for serving alcohol to the restaurant or function facility.
  5. Make Sure You Are Covered – If you host a holiday party on your business premises be certain your insurance policy will cover liability for any damage to property or personal injuries that may occur. You may be able to purchase a rider to extend the coverage to the party. Keep in mind that injuries to employees at a holiday party may or may not be covered by workers’ compensation. Be sure you have adequate coverage in advance.
  6. Make Sure the Party is Accessible – Whether you have employees who fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or not, you should make certain that any venue you select for your holiday part offers full access for staff and their guests.
  7. Post Your Harassment Policy in Advance – All employees, including managers, should be reminded in advance of the company’s harassment policy, and reminded that it will be in effect – and strictly enforced - during the party. This is not limited to sexual harassment, but may also include inappropriate behavior or offensive statements. Management should be on alert for such behavior throughout the party and be prepared to react quickly to put a stop to any improper conduct.

Addressing these issues in advance can help your company avoid an expensive and embarrassing lawsuit, and allow you to enjoy a more relaxed and prosperous New Year.

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