Although holiday parties may be an excellent opportunity for employees to socialize outside of the confines of the office, and to reward employees for their service, they can also give rise to employer liability in the absence of appropriate precautions. Before planning your next holiday soiree, review the potential pitfalls and solutions below so that your event can be full of cheer, rather than unpleasant lawsuits.
Serving Alcohol at Company Functions
While having alcohol available may make typical water cooler conversations less awkward, it can lead to liability for employers in the form of vicarious liability, sexual harassment, social host liability, and other potential issues.
Even though refraining from serving alcohol altogether is the safest option, in the event that your company plans to serve alcohol at you next function, keep the following tips in mind:
Never, ever serve alcohol to minors (in the event minors are invited to the event, require proper ID and issue wristbands to adults 21+);
Ensure that there are sufficient non-alcoholic beverages and food to accompany the alcohol—intoxication can be exacerbated when guests drink on an empty stomach;
Issue drink tickets to limit guests’ alcohol consumption;
Host a “cash-bar,” at which employees must buy their own drinks. They may be less likely to keep drinking if they have to pay for their own alcohol;
Discourage employees from drinking excessively and immediately stop serving guests who are overly intoxicated;
Hold the party at an off-site location, such as a restaurant with a liquor license and professional bartenders;
Arrange transportation home for employees, or provide credit/pre-paid rides from taxi companies or rideshare companies like Uber or Lyft;
Hold the party at an earlier time in the day; and
Limit the duration of the party to reduce the amount of time employees spend consuming alcoholic beverages.
Sexual Harassment Liability
While some employees may be using the excuse of a holiday party and “liquid courage” to make their feelings known to their crush, or simply lose their manners, under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), employers are responsible for providing a workplace free of harassment. Employers must take all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring, even if the incident occurs off-site at a company-sanctioned event. The presence of alcohol lowers inhibitions and can negatively impact employee judgment.
To help minimize liability arising from sexual harassment, employers should highlight relevant policies in the Employee Handbook and provide sexual harassment training for employees and supervisors. Employers should take care to avoid risky holiday customs such as hanging mistletoe, which can encourage physical contact among guests.
As always, employers should take every employee harassment complaint seriously, and investigate and respond to them in a timely and appropriate manner.
Sensitivity to Religious and Non-Religious Beliefs
Employers should be aware of potential religious discrimination issues that may arise in the context of a holiday party. Although the EEOC and courts consider certain decorations to be secular in nature (such as wreaths, Santa, and Christmas trees), employers should make every effort to avoid objects, theme parties, or activities with religious symbolism. The best practice is to make a holiday party as secular and inclusive as possible.
If an employee objects to a particular practice or custom on religious grounds, an employer must offer a reasonable accommodation to the employee. A good solution for this is to ensure the holiday party is voluntary, not mandatory, and that regardless of being labeled “voluntary”, employees do not feel pressured or expected to attend.
With the holidays approaching, company parties can be an excellent way to say “thank you” and boost morale among the office. Rather than being discouraged by potential liability, take the time to plan ahead so that employees can enjoy a fun and safe event.
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*This article is for informational purposes only, and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. This article does not make any guarantees as to the outcome of a particular matter, as each matter has its own set of circumstances and must be evaluated individually by a licensed attorney.
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