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Legal Considerations for Holiday Parties

Some company holiday parties are legendary, whether it was a cheerful good time for all involved, or a full-on fiasco. There was even a movie made about them, which we’re convinced could be based on real stories from HR managers around the world. The merriment comes with legal considerations that should be weighed ahead of time, so your management team can avoid the dreaded “over-served” employee(s). Speaking of covering your bases, we’re obligated to remind you that this is not legal advice. If you have concerns about the risk associated with throwing a holiday party for employees, please consult your business counsel.

  • Attendance – Make sure all employees are included in the party, but attendance should be voluntary.     
  • The focus of the party should be on celebrating the employees and not about a particular holiday. Avoid referring to the party as a “Christmas Party,” and just call it a “Holiday Party,” or an “End of the Year Party.”                                                                                           
  • Alcohol – Many employers choose to serve alcohol at holiday work parties. If you want to limit exposure, employers could hire a catering service that would have the appropriate licensing and insurance that can provide professionals who are trained to handle alcohol-related issues, or hold the party on the premises of a fully-insured third party vendor. Employers might only want to offer beer and wine and keep liquor with high alcohol content off the menu. Employers could also pass out drink tickets where employees are only given one or two drink tickets. In addition, have plenty of soft drinks or other non-alcoholic beverages available. If you plan on offering alcohol, make sure there is plenty of food available for employees!  
  • Offer to reimburse employees for the cost of an Uber home. This is an easy way to reduce potential liability. This could be considered an expense of hosting a holiday party.
  • When and where the event will be held – The place, day of the week, and time of the party can affect employee behavior. An employee party downtown might feel more festive but may be more likely to get out of control. Either a holiday lunch party or a party with set hours might limit rowdy behavior.       
  • Harassment – Even though a company-sponsored party may take place off-site and/or off-hours, employers may still find themselves facing a sexual, religious, or other types of harassment claims. If an employer elects to serve alcohol at a company-sponsored event, employees who are under the influence of alcohol may have impaired judgment – which can result in inappropriate actions, behaviors, or comments in violation of the company’s Harassment Policy.  The company still needs to address this inappropriate conduct as if it had taken place on-site and during business hours. To reduce the risk of a harassment claim, employers may wish to consider:
    • Using non-religious decorations – Some possibilities include snowflakes, trees, wreaths, lights, candy canes, etc.
    • Don’t hang mistletoe in the workplace or at the party – This is a sexual harassment case waiting to happen.
    • Having a dress code for the party- Consider having a business dress code for the Holiday Party to ensure everyone dresses appropriately.
    • Reminding everyone of the company’s Harassment Policy – Consider sending the Harassment Policy out annually prior to the Company’s Holiday Party and have employees sign off that they have received a copy of the policy and will agree to abide by it.
    • Training Managers – Managers are role models for employees. They should set a positive and professional example.  They should help to ensure those who have had too much to drink don’t behave inappropriately or try to drive themselves (or others) home.
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