Avoiding Office Holiday Party Headaches

December 7, 2016 | By

It’s the holiday season again and while the office holiday party is a wonderful time to show appreciation to your employees and create camaraderie among coworkers, it can also be a time of legal headaches that can last through the New Year.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management, approximately 65% of employers plan to host a holiday or end-of-the-year party. Although employers who choose to celebrate usually have the right intentions, at the risk of sounding Grinch-like, holiday parties may inevitably create a multitude of opportunities for things to go terribly wrong (i.e., sexual harassment, religious discrimination, wage and hour violations, workers’ compensation claims, etc.).

In order for employers to avoid potential legal troubles commonly associated with holiday parties, HR Legalist has created the following list. And just like old Saint Nick, we suggest you check it twice.

  • Use Common Sense if Serving Alcohol

What’s a holiday party without a cup of cheer? Employers that choose to serve alcoholic beverages at the holiday party should take common-sense precautions in order to avoid overconsumption.  For example, employers should limit the amount of alcohol consumed by offering a ticket system or a cash-bar.  In addition, employers should stick with beer and wine and avoid serving alcohol-based punch or eggnog which could make it harder for employees to determine how much they have had to drink. Cutting off alcoholic drinks before the party ends is also an option.  Finally, it is always a good idea to provide ample amounts of food so that guests don’t drink on an empty stomach.

  • Be Inclusive

In order to avoid claims of religious discrimination, employers should avoid endorsing or celebrating a specific religion. Employers must remember the sentiment behind the holiday party is usually one to foster team spirit and togetherness.  Therefore, employers should be mindful about not making religion a central focus of the party.  This includes referring to the event as a “holiday party” and not a “Christmas party” and limiting religious decorations such as nativity scenes, etc.  Remember that if an employee does complain about the nature of the party, the employer must engage in the interactive process and may have to offer a reasonable accommodation to the employee.

  • Attendance is Not Mandatory

Gasp! Although it may be tough for some people to imagine, for any number of reasons some employees may have no inclination to attend an office holiday party.  Employers should remember that attendance at the party should not be mandatory (unless you want to pay them under wage and hour laws).  Make attendance optional and don’t make employees feel bad for not attending.

  • Social Media is Always Watching

It’s fair to say that no employer would want inappropriate office holiday antics to go viral on social media. Although it’s impossible to prevent employees from posting comments/pictures/videos, employers should take care to avoid potential embarrassment for the company and their employees.  Employers should not allow drinking games, dance competitions, unsupervised skits or speeches, or any other opportunities that could create humiliation or awkwardness.   And for obvious reasons, just say no to the mistletoe!

  • Remind Employees that Workplace Policies Apply

It is always a good idea to remind employees that even though the holiday party may not be on-premises or during working hours, all workplace policies still apply. This includes dress codes, anti-harassment policies, and even drug-free workplace policies (especially in states where recreational marijuana is legal). Sending an email or memo to employees prior to the party sets the tone that employees are expected to behave appropriately.

  • Consider Offering Transportation

If alcohol is served, it is a good idea for employers to provide for transportation (i.e., Uber, Lyft, taxi, private driver) from the event. It not only protects your employees (and others) from harm, it protects the company from potential legal liability. In addition, it is a good idea to enlist the help of senior management prior to the party to assist with ensuring that no one gets behind the wheel that has had too much to drink.

  • If Inappropriate Behavior Does Occur, Take Immediate Action

Even if an employer takes all precautions to avoid holiday headaches, it may be inevitable that an employee engages in behavior that must be addressed. It is important that the employers take any direct or indirect complaints from the holiday party seriously and not delay initiating an investigation. It is all too easy to wait until the New Year to try to figure out what happened, however doing so could increase the liability for employers. Employers should remember to document their findings and take prompt corrective action, if necessary.

 Keeping these guidelines in mind, HR Legalist wishes all employers the happiest (and headache-free) holiday parties. We advise our readers to consult legal counsel if you have any questions about hosting office holiday parties or any post-holiday party concerns.

Categorized In: Workplace Policies
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