HR Support for Providing Rules on Office Parties

Editor's Note: Advice for employers on minimizing liability with regard to office parties.

Beth P. ZollerOverview: When planning any office party or celebration, there are many issues an employer should take into account. The employer should first consider the reason for celebrating whether it is a holiday, to thank employees for their hard work and dedication, to celebrate a milestone in the business or the launch of a new product or plan, or just to boost employee morale and company unity. The employer should aim to be inclusive. Even if celebrating a holiday, employers should avoid celebrations that are overtly religious. Otherwise, an employer may open itself up to a claim of religious discrimination.

Further, the employer should think about dietary restrictions and allergies when choosing a menu and may want to consider adding things like vegetarian options. An employer should carefully consider whether it will choose to serve alcohol. If alcohol is served, an employer may be liable as a social host for alcohol-related problems such as automobile accidents or serving to underage employees. Further, if planning entertainment or music, the employer should aim to play appropriate music that does not contain racial slurs or language that is derogatory or offensive to women and minorities.

Lastly, while an employer may want to encourage all employees to attend, the employer should not make attendance mandatory. Employers should take into account that employee may have other obligations with work or with family. Further, employers should be aware that employees who are not exempt from overtime requirements under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) may claim attendance at an employer-sponsored event is compensable work time.

Trends: Employers should understand that in choosing to hold any office celebration or party, an employer may open itself up to potential claims. If an employer serves alcohol, it may cloud an employee's judgment and lead to inappropriate behavior and claims of sexual harassment and discrimination.

Further, if employees get rowdy, the venue is unsafe, or alcohol brings on unacceptable workplace conduct, an employer may expose itself to potential negligence or workers' compensations claims for property damage or physical or emotional injuries to employees or third parties. Employers may want to minimize liability by ending office parties and celebrations on the early side and arranging for employee transportation home. Employers also may want to designate certain managers and supervisors to keep a close eye on employees to address any potential issues that may arise.

Author: Beth P. Zoller, JD, Legal Editor

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HR Guidance on planning an appropriate office party and reducing an employer’s potential for liability.