Keeping the Cheer in Holiday Work Parties While Minimizing Litigation Risk

BlogpicholidayAs the weather turns colder and holiday hymns begin to fill the air, many companies are putting the final touches on their plans for holiday parties and celebrations.  A recent survey found that 70% of employers plan on hosting a year-end party for their employees.[1]  Holiday parties reward employees for their hard work and can help employees and managers get to know one another better and provide for team-building.  Unfortunately, they can also raise employment issues and lead to litigation.  Here are some tips to help minimize the litigation risk and enjoy holiday celebrations.

The Risk

It is important to realize that whether the holiday party occurs at the office or off-site, employers owe a duty to their employees to prevent harassment, discrimination and other unlawful actions.  Employers may also be liable under “dram-shop” laws for harm caused by employees or guests who become intoxicated and later cause harm.

Steps to Mitigate the Risk:

  • ·       In the days or weeks preceding the party, remind employees and managers of the company’s non-discrimination and non-harassment parties.  Make sure that employees understand that the party should be considered an extension of the workplace.  Employees should also be reminded to dress appropriately.  Supervisors and managers should be reminded of their obligations to be vigilant and that they must take action if they see inappropriate behavior at the party.  You might also consider inviting spouses and significant others to the party.
  • ·       Set the appropriate tone.  From picking the venue to selecting the music or entertainment, it is important to create the right atmosphere.  If you want your employees to act professionally and get to know one another better, having the party at a nightclub or playing loud dance music is probably not the way to go.  It is also important to keep religion out of the party.  Holiday parties are meant to bring employees and management together in the spirit of the holidays to celebrate accomplishments, build and strengthen the team and boost morale.  All employees should feel welcome.  And by all means, skip the Mistletoe!
  • ·     If you are going to serve alcohol, plan ahead.  According to the BLR survey, 49% of employers intend make alcohol available at their holiday celebration.  If that includes you, it is important to understand the risks involved and take steps to mitigate them.

1.       If you plan to serve alcohol, have the holiday celebration off-site, served by professional bartenders who are well versed in determining when someone has had too much to drink.  Do not allow employees or managers to be “guest bartenders.”  Instruct the bar staff to make sure that visibly intoxicated employees and guests are not served.  It is also important to check in with the bar staff during the party to make sure they are not being harassed.

2.       Take steps to control the amount of alcohol consumed.    This can be done by holding the party at a time that is less conducive to excessive alcohol consumption—such as lunch or on a weeknight.  Avoid having an open bar.  If you don’t want a cash bar, give employees drink tickets—but watch out for employees passing tickets to other employees.  Also, close the bar an hour or so before the party is scheduled to end.

3.       Make sure that there is plenty of delicious food to encourage employees to eat before they start drinking (and maybe delay in opening the bar a little).

4.       Provide entertainment to prevent drinking from being the focus of the party.  Just be sure that the entertainment is clean and non-controversial.

5.       Encourage employees to notify management if another employee appears overly intoxicated and consider asking non-exempt employees to keep an eye out for employees who are intoxicated.

6.       The company should also take steps to arrange designated drivers and/or a taxi service to take employees home (preferably paid in advance).  It is important to ensure that your employees get home safely.

  • ·       Make attendance voluntary and refrain from engaging in business during the party.  This is not the time for speeches about business matters or distributing of bonuses or performance awards.  If non-exempt employees are required to attend, they must be paid for their time.

 Finally, if employees complain after the party about inappropriate behavior, it is essential that those claims are taken seriously.  Employers must promptly investigate and address all claims of harassment and should contact an attorney if they have any questions.

Image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti/Free Digital

Julie Kinkopf, Esquire is principal of Kinkopf Law LLC and is an accomplished attorney who has been representing employers for over 15 years.  Ms. Kinkopf helps businesses develop sound employment practices and provides training to supervisors and employees designed to avoid litigation and government audits.  She also represents employers before various governmental agencies as well as in state and federal courts in post-employment litigation, including discrimination, retaliation, pay disputes and non-compete/trade secret matters.  More information may be found at or

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November 15, 2013 · 3:00 am

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