Let the Festivities Begin.

It’s that time again. The leaves are changing; there is crispness in the air and it’s time to start planning the company’s annual end of year or holiday party. While these events are wonderful opportunities for employees and their families to get together to celebrate the season, they can have unanticipated legal implications and bring with them the potential opportunity to create employer legal liability. 

Not only can the fun and festivities of a company Christmas party lead to employer liability resulting from alcohol related accidents or injuries, but the relaxed environment and the introduction of alcohol can also lead to allegations of sexual harassment. The following ideas are a few suggestions an employer should consider in planning and carrying out a company-sponsored event.

Don’t Require Attendance And Don’t Take Roll.

There are several reasons why an employer does not want to mandate that its employees attend the company party as a condition of employment. For example, if the company sponsors an annual Christmas party, there may be some employees who subscribe to religious faiths that do not celebrate or recognize Christmas. Mandating employees attend these parties, or disciplining employees because they do not attend, could result in charges of religious discrimination. For this reason, many companies have elected to use secular names for their seasonal parties such as “Holiday” or “Winter” party.

Another reason to avoid mandating attendance at the company party is to minimize the possibility of accidents or injuries to employee-guests occurring at the event being compensable injuries and covered by workers’ compensation.

Discourage Overindulgence of Alcohol.

One of the most effective ways of avoiding many of the adverse issues that arise from company sponsored events is to avoid serving alcohol. However, if a company is going to supply or permit the use of alcohol at a company event, it should plan effectively so that alcohol is used responsibly. 

Through pre-party meetings or memos, employees can and should be subtly reminded that, while occurring outside of working hours, the party is still a company-sponsored event and to avoid excessive alcohol consumption (i.e., drink in moderation). Employees should also be reminded that while certain workplace conduct policies may be relaxed during this nonworking time, the policies directed at prohibiting harassment (sexual and otherwise) continue to apply at all company-sponsored events. 

Unfortunately, some employees incorrectly believe that the company party is the time and the place to let it all hang out and that there will be no consequences for their conduct occurring outside of regular working hours. Unlike Las Vegas, things that are said and done at the company party don’t necessarily stay there and may have to be investigated by Human Resources after the event. Employees must understand that there can be consequences for their behavior –even at the company holiday party.

Pay To Play Or Distribute Drink Tickets.

Two ways to reduce the alcohol consumption at the company party include offering a cash bar or distributing a limited number of drink tickets to each guest. Many companies have elected to use cash rather than open bars at company-sponsored events. Frequently, when guests have to purchase their own drinks, they tend to consume fewer drinks. If an employer is going to have an open bar at its expense, another alternative is to distribute drink tickets that can be redeemed for a beverage of choice. While there is always the possibility of a guest collecting unused drink tickets from teetotaling guests, drink tickets can help limit or reduce the amount of alcohol consumed by guest employees.

Invite Spouses.

It is important when determining who will be invited to attend the company’s annual holiday party to consider including spouses.  Many sexual harassment claims arising out of the company’s sponsored events would likely be avoided if employee-spouses were invited and attended.  I analogize inviting spouses to annual holiday party in a similar way to this, "Would you jay walk if a policeman were standing on the corner to observe you?"  Probably not, and for the same reasons, spouses served as the policeman on the corner for some bad behavior that might occur in their absence.  Conversely, including spouses can sometimes create conflict such as when an employee perceives that his or her spouse’s honor has been disrespected.  This typically involves an overindulgence of alcohol making use of drink ticket or other limitations on alcohol important.

Location, Location, Location/Hire A Caterer To Operate The Bar.

Another consideration should be the location of the event. It is often appropriate to schedule the event away from the office at an offsite location. This helps protect the employer’s property and assets. It can also be particularly important in preventing unauthorized access to confidential or trade secret information in the workplace or access to hazardous or dangerous equipment that may be used in the employer’s business. 

Employers can also employ the use of a coat check system where guests can check their coats and other personal articles. Guests should also be encouraged to leave their automobile keys with the coat check. Prior to leaving, guests can be individually observed to ascertain their ability to drive home when retrieving their coats and keys. Another alternative is to use a complementary valet system. Most guests will use the valet service. The employer (or its third party valet service) will then have possession of the guests’ keys and can evaluate each guest at the end of the party before returning the car keys. In either situation, it is important to have a responsible person that is trained in identifying the signs of intoxication. Off duty, plain-clothed law enforcement officers can usually be employed for this task.

Finally, hire a caterer or other third party to operate the bar. Ensure that the caterer is instructed verbally (and even better yet in writing) that they are not to serve any guest that appears to be intoxicated and the employer should designate a representative whom the caterer should notify in the event a guest may have overindulged.

Offer Plenty of Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverages.

Be sure that as a part of the event the company offers a variety of food and that it stays well-stocked so that employees can eat plenty with their cocktails. While everyone loves salty, greasy and sweet foods, those kinds of foods make guests feel thirsty and can have the effect of increasing alcohol consumption. Try to include foods that are high in starch and protein which stay in the stomach longer and slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.

Last Call and No Roadies.

Close the bar long before the party is expected to conclude. After the bar has closed, continue to serve food and other non-alcoholic beverages. This will give guests an opportunity to let some of the effects of any alcohol they may have consumed subside and may give the employer additional time to identify guests who need additional assistance getting home.

Arrange alternative transportation.

Despite your best efforts, there may be an employee who needs assistance in getting home. Anticipate this need and make arrangements for some alternative means of transportation such as a taxi or car service. Encourage all employees to make use of this service if they consume any alcohol.

If the event is being held at a hotel, negotiate discounted room rates when booking the event. Some employees might prefer to stay the night after the party rather than travel home. If this is negotiated in advance, it can be advertised to employees with the holiday invitations and they can better plan their evening activities.

Investigate Complaints.

Occasionally, a company sponsored event like a holiday party may spawn an employee complaint such as an unwelcome sexual advance. Some employers incorrectly believe that because the conduct complained of occurred during non-working hours or away from work that such conduct need not be investigated. This can be an expensive mistake. Prudent employers investigate all complaints that they receive from their employees having any nexus to the workplace. Complaints about conduct occurring at the annual party should be investigated like any other complaints as the conduct may affect an employee’s working relationship with co-workers.

Company parties are intended to be fun, rewarding occasions for co-workers and their families to share time away from the stresses of the workplace. With careful planning an employer can maximize the opportunity for fun and celebration and minimize the chances that the event becomes something the company might prefer to forget.