Minimizing Employers’ Holiday Party Risks: Don’t Be Left Out in the Cold

With holiday season almost here, workplace holiday parties are also coming soon. These parties are often a good idea to encourage camaraderie among employees and managers and thank your workforce for a job well done. However, a festive and happy celebration can carry a great deal of risk for employers as well. From claims of religious discrimination to sexual harassment to risks of drunk driving, if an employer is not careful things can turn sour in a hurry.

Here are 9 ways an employer can minimize the risk of liability when it comes to holiday parties:

1. Enforce Discrimination, Harassment and Employee Conduct Policies

The employer should convey to employees that its workplace policies regarding discrimination, harassment, employee dating, employee conduct and its dress code remain in effect even during the holiday party, and employees as well as supervisors will be liable for violations. The employer should make sure all employees are on their best behavior and that all conduct is proper and professional as this will protect the employer’s interests.

2. Have Supervisors Set a Good Example

Supervisors should lead the way and set a good example for the rest of the employees by enforcing and complying with the employer’s policies regarding discrimination and harassment as well as the employer’s code of conduct. Management employees should also be trained to identify instances of inappropriate conduct and to immediately report them to the employer or HR as the employer may be on the hook.

3. Exercise Caution if Serving Alcohol

If an employer decides to serve or allow alcohol, it should designate a management employee to monitor alcohol intake and make sure employees do not become too intoxicated or incoherent.

Management should also make sure that all employees are completely sober before driving home. If an intoxicated employee leaves the workplace or a workplace event and injures a third party, or damages a third party’s property, the employer may be liable for negligence. Because of this, a lunch time affair may be safer as employees may be likely to drink less during daytime hours.

4.Keep the Focus Off Religion

In planning for any holiday party, it is important for an employer to avoid overly religious symbols such as Christmas trees, nativity scenes and mistletoe when it comes to party decorations and avoid overly religious music. Instead, the employer should stick with non-religious winter symbols such as snowflakes, snowmen and sleds. Otherwise, an employer risks making employees feel uncomfortable and may open itself up to a religious discrimination or harassment claim.

5. Do Not Make Attendance Mandatory

While it may be a good idea to hold the party outside of working hours so it does not interfere with workplace obligations, an employer should keep in mind that holiday parties are not for everyone. Some of your employees may not want to attend the holiday party because they do not celebrate the season for personal, cultural and/or religious reasons.

Also, some employees may have family obligations that may prevent them from attending if the party is after hours. Mandatory attendance could also create wage and hour issues for employees who are nonexempt. Additionally, if attendance is mandatory it may be considered working time and hourly employees may be entitled to overtime.

6. Carefully Plan the Menu and Entertainment

When planning the party, be sure to take the individual needs and concerns of employees into account. For instance, consider the dietary needs of employees and be prepared to offer vegetarian, kosher and gluten-free foods. Further, an employer should make sure it provides activities, entertainment and music that is appropriate, festive and appealing to a wide variety of employees. In planning the party, aim to have input from a diverse group of employees within the organization.

7. Be Inclusive of All Employees

When it comes to celebrating the holidays, an employer should be inclusive of all employees working in all offices or job sites and even employees who telecommute or work remotely. An employer also may want to consider whether it will include gig workers or independent contractors in the celebration. If an employer is extending invitations to out of town employees, the employer may want to consider paying for travel.

8. Consider Whether to Invite Spouses or Significant Others
If the employer’s budget permits, an employer may want to consider inviting spouses or significant others. In fact, employees may be more likely to be on their best behavior in such situations. However, an employer should remember to be inclusive of all employees and understand that some employees may have a significant other of the same sex.

9. Respond to Complaints in a Timely Fashion

If there are any complaints at the holiday party, the employer should be sure to address them head on and deal with them. Once on notice that an employee is complaining of discrimination, harassment or inappropriate conduct, the employer and HR have a legal duty to follow up and document the complaint. The employer or an investigator should look into the matter and impose interim or disciplinary measures if needed.

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