Holiday parties are a time-honored tradition in most workplaces.  While holiday parties can boost workplace morale and culture, poor management and planning can lead to unfortunate incidents and even worse, lawsuits.  In light of recent headlines on sexual harassment and other employment issues, it is especially important to consider various steps that you can take to minimize personnel issues and potential liability.

Monitor Alcohol Consumption and Provide Transportation

Alcohol is commonly served at holiday parties.  If not properly monitored, alcohol consumption can cause employees to engage in inappropriate, unwelcome or injurious conduct.  Successfully monitoring employee alcohol consumption can greatly reduce the risk of these kinds of incidents.

Consider limiting alcohol consumption by providing “drink tickets” or setting a drink maximum.  If your event is catered and not at a restaurant, you should hire a professional bartender to serve alcohol.  Professional bartenders are trained to monitor excessive drinking and cut off patrons who have had “too much.”  Also, consider providing transportation to and from the party.  This will reduce the risk of drunk driving and an employee hurting himself or others, and/or getting arrested.  Lastly, you should consider cutting off alcohol at least an hour before the party ends.

Set an Appropriate Time

Timing can be everything.  Holiday parties traditionally are evening affairs.  Consider departing from the evening tradition and hosting a party during the day.  If you plan to stick to the evening tradition, strongly consider starting and ending earlier in the evening.  Regardless of the time of day, make sure there is a strict end time and employees do not hang around after the party.  You should not sponsor or organize “after-party” events.  To this end, supervisors and managers should not attend the “after-party.”

Remind Employees of Personnel Policies and Expectations

Remind your employees that workplace rules will apply and clearly communicate your expectations in advance.  Consider reminding employees of the relevant personnel policies in advance of the event (e.g. anti-harassment, drugs and alcohol, dress code, and the code of conduct).  Before doing this, you should make sure that personnel policies and mandatory trainings are up-to-date.

Managers and/or supervisors should be reminded of their obligations to report certain behavior and should be encouraged to intervene where appropriate.  Managers and supervisors should help set the tone for holiday party behavior and hold employees accountable.  It is important that you clearly communicate your expectations and that employees understand that inappropriate behavior can lead to discipline.

Avoiding Wage and Hour Issues

Asking nonexempt employees to perform tasks at the holiday party can raise wage and hour issues.  Time spent performing duties for the benefit of the employer is considered compensable work time.  Therefore, you should establish that the party is voluntary and should not ask nonexempt employees to perform any duties or administrative tasks like setting up at the event, picking up supplies, or cleaning up.  Instead, rely on your exempt employees or consider hiring an outside company to complete these tasks.  If you choose to use nonexempt employees, make sure they are paid for all regular or overtime hours.

Holiday parties can be rife with potential liability if you are not careful.  If you follow these tips you can ensure your employees are able to celebrate the close of another business year while reducing your risk of liability.

Happy Holidays from the Carmody Labor and Employment team!