Company holiday parties invite litigation; Tips to avoid starting the New Year with a lawsuit

Iowa Employment & Labor Law Dickinson Law Firm Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 12/12/2013 at 03:50 PM by The Newsroom

The holiday party season is in full swing, and employers and employees alike are in the spirit to celebrate and unwind. Unfortunately, what makes for a fun holiday party doesn't always jibe with company standards for professionalism in the workplace. An employer is just as legally accountable for what happens at the holiday party as it is for what happens around the water cooler. It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that holiday parties have been known to produce a lawsuit or two. Here are some tips to help avoid beginning your new year with litigation.

1. Train/Warn Employees Beforehand. Your company's policies and expectations for employee conduct are fully effective at the holiday party, and your employees need to know and understand this. Shortly before the party, an employer should consider sending out a memo to its employees reminding them of the company's policies on harassment and discrimination, as well as any workplace code of conduct or expectations. Also explain to employees that the company's policies apply to company-sponsored social events in the office and outside of the office. Clearly state that any before-party or after-party is not sponsored by the company.

2. Alcohol. Clearly, not serving alcohol at the holiday party is the best way to go. Advising your employees that they are not permitted to bring their own alcohol is also smart. If you do allow alcohol at your holiday party, make sure you've hired an outside service provider to handle the bartending and related duties. Prohibit your management staff from serving alcohol to employees. Ensure there are a wide variety of non-alcoholic drink options available, including 'mocktails.' Explicitly instruct service personnel not to serve anyone who appears intoxicated. Ask the bartenders to mix 'weak' drinks. If the company is paying for the drinks, provide each employee with one or two drink tickets, and require employees to pay for any additional drinks. Cut off the alcohol service at least one or two hours before the end of the party. Provide alternative transportation home such as a shuttle service. At the very least, organize a carpool with volunteer sober-drivers. Drivers should be instructed to drop off employees at their homes and nowhere else.

3. Keep it Secular. Unless your company has a legal religious exemption from employment laws, avoid company references to specific religions or religious practices. Think of the holiday party as a yearly celebration of the company and a thank you to employees. While the timing happens to coincide with many religious happenings, keep the company party strictly secular. This includes all music, gifts, decorations, and topics of conversation!

4. No Racy Gifts, Games, or Gab. Holiday parties can become increasingly racy or controversial as the night wears on and employees' inhibitions are lowered (and alcohol greases those wheels!). Gifts and games are not uncommon, and they often veer toward the inappropriate, as do topics of conversation. While there's only so much a company can do about this, train your management-level employees to be on the lookout for such happenings and politely shut them down before they get out of hand. Just like in the workplace, managers with knowledge of inappropriate conduct are lawfully required to take appropriate measures to stop it and address the problem. Failure to do so because the conduct occurred at the holiday party will not fly in the courtroom.

5. Make it Absolutely Voluntary. Do not require your employees to attend. Do not pressure your employees to attend. Do not insinuate, even in the slightest way, that failure to attend will adversely impact or reflect poorly on an employee.

6. Respond Promptly to Post-Party Concerns. It's not unusual for a company to learn of a potential problem a week or two after the holiday party. Have management appropriately trained and ready to respond to any concerns that are raised by employees or their party guests. How a company responds to an employee's concerns about inappropriate workplace behavior can significantly impact whether that employee ultimately seeks out an attorney and pursues litigation. Furthermore, if an employee does sue the company, a prompt and appropriate company response to the employee's complaint can provide a solid defense to a discrimination or harassment claim.

No amount of precautionary steps will entirely eliminate the risk of employee lawsuits associated with the holiday party. The same is true for the workplace in general. If you're smart you can minimize the risks, and your holiday party can be a great opportunity to boost employee morale and regroup for the new year.  

The material in this blog is not intended, nor should it be construed or relied upon, as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney if specific legal information is needed.


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