The holiday season is here and many employers have scheduled holiday parties to celebrate the year, thank employees for their service, and build employee morale. These parties are a long-standing tradition that employees look forward to attending.

Every year, however, holiday parties result in claims of harassment and discrimination based on various acts of misconduct. An employer can be held vicariously liable for incidents that occur at its party because it is generally considered an extension of the workplace. This is not necessarily a good reason to avoid having holiday parties, but it is a good reason to carefully plan so that the risk is minimized.

Monitor Alcohol Consumption and Provide Transportation
Alcohol is the greatest risk factor.  If not properly monitored, alcohol consumption can cause employees to engage in inappropriate, unwelcome or injurious conduct.  Consider the following:

  • limit alcohol consumption by providing “drink tickets”,
  • limit the period when alcohol is served,
  • stop serving alcohol at least one hour before the party ends,
  • only serve beer and wine, and
  • offer food and non-alcoholic options to counteract the effects of alcohol consumption.

Employers should strongly consider hosting the party at a restaurant, hotel or other venue that is licensed to serve alcohol. If the party is catered, a professional bartender should be hired to serve alcohol.

Employers should also consider providing transportation to and from the party or have a plan for carpooling with a designated driver. Employers should never allow an employee to drive home if there is suspicion that the employee is under the influence of alcohol.

Set an Appropriate Time
Consider hosting the party during the day or end the party earlier in the evening.  Regardless, make sure there is a strict end time and employees do not hang around after the party. Employers also should not sponsor or organize “after-party” events, and management employees should not attend the “after-party.”

Remind Employees of Expectations
Remind employees of the relevant personnel policies in advance (e.g. anti-harassment, drugs and alcohol, dress code, and the code of conduct.). Management employees should also be reminded that they must lead by example, intervene where appropriate, and hold employees accountable. Employers must promptly investigate any complaints of inappropriate behavior.

Avoid Wage and Hour Issues
Time spent performing duties for the benefit of the employer is considered compensable work time.  Therefore, Employers employers should clearly establish that attendance at the party is voluntary and should not ask nonexempt employees to perform any duties unless they are paid.

Address Social Media Issues
With virtually everyone carrying a camera on their smartphone, it is easy to post an embarrassing picture or video on social media. This can be damaging to the employee(s) affected and the employer. To minimize this risk, employers can instruct employees not to take pictures or video record employees without their consent.

Holiday parties can be rife with potential liability if employers are not careful.  Following these tips can help ensure that employees are able to celebrate the close of another business year while reducing the risk of liability.

Happy holidays!