With the holiday season in full swing, many employers are in the process of planning their office holiday parties.  Holding a social event is a great way to celebrate the holiday season and to thank employees for their hard work. Unfortunately, employers face the risk of liability should an employee be permitted to drink too much and/or engage in inappropriate behavior at a work-related function. There is the added risk of safety-related liability should that intoxicated employee drive home and injure themselves or an innocent third party. Luckily, there are simple and effective ways to reduce these risks.

While it is someone else’s job to make sure there is enough eggnog and to pick the band, it is our job to remind you to take proactive steps when planning your holiday celebration. Here are some tips for hosting a safe and successful office holiday party, while reducing the risk of a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

Preventing Harassment

Recent case law suggests that the employer’s duty to provide an environment reasonably free of harassment extends to office holiday parties. Unfortunately, the case law also suggests that allegations of harassment, assault, and other related claims stemming from the annual holiday party are becoming more and more prevalent. For these reasons, we recommend that our clients and other friends take the following steps:

  • Ensure employees are aware of the Company’s Code of Conduct and in particular, the anti-harassment policies;
  • Before the event, remind employees that all workplace rules of conduct regarding mutual respect, violence, harassment, and sexual harassment extend to employer-hosted social events, such as holiday parties;
  • Include a reminder on the invitation itself, stating that the usual guidelines for conduct apply;
  • Consider designating specific members of management or human resources to “monitor” the party, enabling them to take immediate steps to correct any issues that may arise;
  • Communicate to all guests that these “monitors” are available should an incident arise and that any information reported to them will be treated as confidential; and
  • Keep an eye on alcohol consumption (see below).

Alcohol Consumption

The decisions you make around serving alcohol are critical in decreasing the chances of your holiday party finding its way onto the front page or into the court house. We recommend that employers implement the following safety-enhancing measures:

  • Monitor your employees by having someone serve the alcohol, preferably someone who has been trained to recognize the signs of intoxication;
  • Do not serve alcohol to guests that are already intoxicated;
  • Limit the number of drinks, either served at a time or per person;
  • Do not serve strong drinks such as double shots and prohibit any drinking games or contests;
  • Stop serving alcohol an hour before the end of the party;
  • Do not serve alcohol to under age employees or guests;
  • Make sure food and water are available;
  • Provide taxi chits or alternative transportation to employees, and make sure the employees are aware of these accommodations;
  • Take active steps to prevent an intoxicated employee from driving, even if this amounts to calling their spouse or the police. While this may seem like a drastic measure, it could potentially save your company from liability and, more importantly, save someone’s life;
  • Hold your event at a restaurant, even if you are hosting the event and paying for the alcohol. In such a situation, the restaurant, rather than your company, would be considered to be the alcohol provider.
  • Ensure the venue is accessible to those attending your event;
  • If you are in charge, drink moderately so that you may supervise and/or have non-drinkers supervise;
  • Be proactive and send out an “alcohol policy” to employees in preparation for the event; and
  • Learn from the past: If you have had problems in the past, take proactive steps to avoid similar problems.

While you can never fully account for all of the potential risks, a little bit of planning and preparation can ensure that everyone has a good time and goes home safely. Perhaps most importantly for you, you won’t have to call us in the new year to “talk about something that happened” at your Holiday Party.

We wish you and your employees a safe and happy holiday season.