Perspective: Kirton McConkie Law Blog

Holiday parties: Good morale or landmine?

While a holiday party can bring a workforce together and boost morale, it can also bring legal trouble. Employer party planning must include minimizing potential legal risks in addition to the food and festivities.

Here are some of the key areas to consider to help avoid legal situations: 

  • Sexual harassment: Make certain appropriate policies are in place and set the tone of the party in advance to help discourage unwanted sexual advances and other inappropriate activities.
  • Make sure alcohol consumption is planned and monitored appropriately.
  • Shut down all business related functions to lessen exposure for workers’ compensation claims.
  • Avoid wage and hour issues. Make sure participation is voluntary, the party is held outside working hours, and employees are not compelled to take on particular tasks at the function.

Safety

At a company sponsored party, any accidents or injuries might be considered work-related and possibly lead to a workers’ compensation claim. Consider the following tips:

  1. If using a venue away from the office, inspect it to ensure it meets your standards for safety, such as exits, emergency lighting, and flooring that might prevent slips and falls, particularly if there is a chance of bad weather.
  2. Be alert to potential storms. Consider the effects weather may have on safe travel to and from the party.
  3. Think about security needs, especially if the event is in an unfamiliar neighborhood or a venue closed to the general public.
  4. Keep an eye on party-goers to ensure no one wanders off or goes to his or her car alone after dark.
  5. Have an emergency plan in place in case someone is injured or needs medical assistance.
  6. Review situations for employees with disabilities who may require special attention. For example, if a disabled employee must use a wheelchair, check that there is a safe way for him or her to enter and navigate the event, and know how to deal with an emergency.

Harassment and Discrimination

No matter where your party is held, it will be considered an extension of the workplace. Your polices guiding behavior in the workplace apply to a holiday party as well. Make sure employees know conduct not permitted in the office is not permitted at the event.

  1. Make sure everyone knows the event is optional and not required for continued employment, advancement or any other benefit.
  2. Make sure that the party is not tied to any specific religious tradition and is referred to as a “holiday party.”
  3. Take prompt action should activities stray beyond acceptable bounds.
  4. Any complaints made as a result of a holiday party should be taken seriously.  Document, investigate and treat the complaint like a workplace incident.

Alcohol

If alcohol will be served, consider the following:

  1. Hold the event at an off-site location and hire professional bartenders who have their own insurance and are certified for alcohol service. Speak with the vendor to determine what protocols it employs for keeping minors from being served and preventing people from being served while intoxicated.
  2. Make sure there are non-alcoholic beverage options available.
  3. Consider passing out drink tickets to control the amount of consumption.
  4. Stop serving alcohol well before the end of the event to help prevent drinking and driving.
  5. Ensure plenty of food is available. Starchy and high-protein snacks will help slow the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, while salty foods should be avoided as they encourage more drinking.
  6. Provide alternative transportation that may include free cab rides to anyone over imbibing.

Insurance

Make certain your vendors carry their own insurance coverage. Have the catering and bartending companies, facilities or entertainers produce Certificates of Insurance (COI) with sufficient coverage and limits of liability. When reviewing rental contracts, be sure to note any hold harmless or indemnity agreements that could release the vendor from liability and instead hold your company responsible for losses from situations over which you have no control.