An inevitable by-product of the holiday season is the office holiday party. While employers strive to make the holiday party as enjoyable as possible, they should also be wary of the potential pitfalls associated with holding office parties. Several studies show that more than 30 percent of employers nationwide report employee misconduct during office holiday parties.
Employers should not be surprised to learn that employee misconduct can often result in employer liability. Whether it is drunken driving, sexual harassment, property damage or fistfights, employers can face significant liability for the conduct of their employees while attending an office party.
Employers can take several steps to avoid such legal pitfalls, without sacrificing their annual holiday get-togethers. Below are some suggestions that may help employers avoid the problems typical among holiday parties:
First, employers should review relevant policies with employees before holding office holiday parties. Conduct a brief refresher of the employer’s sexual harassment, personal conduct, anti-discrimination policies and the like. Ensure that employees understand that any type of misconduct while at a party will not be tolerated and will be addressed by management.
Attempt to limit the availability of alcohol. If possible, hold your office holiday party at lunchtime, or during working hours, when alcohol will not be served. If you decide to hold a holiday party in the evening, do not have an open bar and do not serve hard liquor. Limit the drink options to beer and wine, end the party at a relatively early hour, and try to serve plenty of food. Additionally, incorporating an activity, such as bowling or trivia, provides a fun way to celebrate with co-workers while shifting the focus off drinking and onto the activity.
Invite significant others and spouses. Employees are less likely to “misbehave” if other family members are present. Additionally, it provides the employee a way to get home if he/she overindulges.
You should also task your supervisors and managers with responsibility for monitoring employee conduct at the party. Let those managers know that they should make sure that no employees drink to excess and that no employee should get behind the wheel of a car if inebriated. Let your employees know that supervisors will be monitoring them, as well. This will, in turn, let your employees know that the office party is not the time to go wild.
Arrange for a taxi or car service to be available to employees who overindulge at the party. Possibly the worst thing that could occur is for an employee to get into a car accident or pulled over by the police while driving home drunk from the office holiday party. Employers should take reasonable steps to ensure this does not happen.
Hold the office holiday party on a weekday or weeknight, during or immediately following working hours. This way, employees are less likely to overindulge because they know they will have work the next day. Additionally, holding the party during or immediately following working hours ensures that employees will be dressed in their typical workplace attire, and not something inappropriate.
Do not make the party mandatory for employees. Believe it or not, a mandatory office party may be considered “work” for employees under federal or state laws, and an employer may be required to pay employees for the time spent at those parties. Additionally, it is more likely that employers will be legally liable for employee misconduct if attendance at the party is mandatory. Therefore, employers should make it clear that attendance is entirely voluntary.
Finally, never hang mistletoe in the office or at the party venue. The potential problems associated with hanging mistletoe are too numerous to list. Just don’t do it. For that matter, don’t have “Santa Claus” visit to take gift requests either. Santa is probably busy at the North Pole…you should leave him there.
These are just some things to consider when planning your office holiday party this year. Just remember that the office holiday is an employer-sanctioned event, which means that employers can get into hot water because of the misconduct of their employees. It is not a time to let employees run wild, but a time to foster camaraderie and office unity in a safe, professional and festive environment.
Peter Herzog is an attorney at Fisher & Phillips LLP in Portland, Maine.