Holiday Party Hazards: How Employers Can Avoid Legal Hangovers

Celebration of Christmas in the office

With winter upon us, ‘tis the season for holiday parties and year-end celebrations. Such festivities are a good way to encourage team camaraderie and thank employees for their hard work and a job well done. However, a few missteps and an employer may find itself facing a lawsuit. In order to minimize the potential for liability, an employer should consider the following planning steps.

Keep the Focus Off Religion

Your holiday party should not be religious in nature and not specifically dedicated to Christmas to avoid claims of religious discrimination and harassment. This means that an employer should consider steering clear of playing overtly religious Christmas music and avoid traditional Christmas decorations such as a manger, Christmas tree, nativity scene or mistletoe.

Instead, focus on non-religious winter symbols such as snowflakes, sleds and icicles to avoid any religious overtones. Meanwhile, an employer should be sensitive to the dietary needs and allergies of its employees and offer kosher, vegetarian and gluten-free food if needed.

It also should provide activities, entertainment and music that is appropriate, festive and broadly appeals to a wide variety of employees. Along these lines, an employer should have a diverse group of employees weigh in on the best way to celebrate the holiday season to demonstrate that the employer supports and values diversity in the workplace.

Avoid Making Attendance Mandatory

Attendance should not be mandatory for the holiday party as this could create wage and hour issues for employees who are nonexempt. If attendance is mandatory it may be considered working time and hourly employees may be entitled to overtime.

Additionally, the party should be outside of working hours so those employees who don’t wish to participate don’t feel pressured to continue working. Consequently, an employer should not conduct any actual work-related activities at the celebration, such as employee training or an employee awards program, as not all employees may take part.

Be Careful If Serving Alcohol

An employer should be very cautious about serving alcohol at the event as this may lead to a myriad of issues, including injuries, discrimination, harassment and inappropriate or offensive conduct. If an employer chooses to serve alcohol, it should designate a management employee or someone at the venue to monitor employees’ alcohol intake.

The employer should also limit alcohol consumption of alcohol by limiting drink tickets. It’s also important to make sure that all employees are completely sober before driving home. If an intoxicated employee leaves the event and injures a third party or damages a third party’s property, the employer may be liable for negligence.

Enforce Discrimination, Harassment and Employee Conduct Policies

Even though the event may be held off site and during nonworking hours, the employer should still reiterate that its policies regarding discrimination, harassment, employee dating, employee conduct and its dress code remain in effect.

The employer should also make sure that employees are aware of the company’s code of conduct and refrain from offensive behavior. To this end, the employer should control employee alcohol intake and keep the atmosphere professional at all times. These precautions will help avoid potential lawsuits.

Make Sure Supervisors Set a Good Example

It is critical to instruct all managers, supervisors and anyone else with authority to set a good example. Even though the event may be after working hours and not on the employer’s premises, management may still be responsible for enforcing policies regarding discrimination and harassment as well as the employer’s code of conduct. Management employees should be trained to identify instances of inappropriate conduct and to immediately report them to the employer or HR.

Respond to Complaints in a Timely Manner

An employer should act quickly if it receives a discrimination or harassment complaint, or learns of any other inappropriate conduct from an employee or supervisor. This means carefully documenting the complaint and initiating an investigation by gathering relevant evidence and interviewing all potential witnesses. And if disciplinary measures are appropriate, the employer should not hesitate to follow through.

What steps will you take to minimize potential liability at your company’s holiday party? Leave a comment below to let us know.

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