Ten ways to keep the Grinch from bringing liability to your company’s seasonal party

How you can throw a holiday party that doesn’t result in potential liability, harassment and/or discrimination issues

By Melissa Salimbene and Lindsay Dischley

You never want to dampen the widely held sentiment that the holiday season is “the most wonderful time of the year,” but clearly if you are an HR professional, in-house counsel or owner of a business, this time of year comes with additional stress when planning the company’s annual get together. Although your intentions are benevolent, gatherings at this time of year risk cultivating many scenarios where your organization ultimately winds up on the “naughty list.” The good news is, taking the time to plan an appropriate, inclusive and socially aware get together will bring the intended joy, rather than the coal that consists of potential liability, harassment and discrimination claims.

Here is our holiday “wish list” to help you plan a gathering your employees will embrace and fondly remember, while behind the scenes you can rest peacefully knowing that you hosted an event that minimized legal liability.

1. Control alcohol consumption. Most complaints arising from company parties involve alcohol. After a few drinks, inhibitions are lowered, which may result in employees engaging in conduct or comments that are unacceptable for the workplace. Remember, even if your event occurs offsite, that does not insulate the company from a claim of workplace misconduct. Limiting or even entirely eliminating the alcohol served at a company party may reduce the risk of employees behaving inappropriately.

Advice on alcohol

If you are going to include alcohol at your party, consider the following options to control consumption:

· Hold the party on a weeknight or during the afternoon as employees may be less inclined to overconsume during these times;

· Rather than a self-serve bar, hire professional bartenders who are trained to identify intoxicated guests and will refuse to serve them;

· Issue drink tickets in order to limit the total number of drinks served to each employee;

· Limit the type of alcohol served. Consider only serving beer and wine as opposed to spirits;

· Stop serving alcohol for a period of time before the party ends so that employees are not drinking alcohol until the very end of the party;

· Provide plenty of non-alcoholic drink options.

2.Designated drivers:  Provide safe transportation at the company’s expense for any potentially intoxicated employees, including shuttles, taxis, Ubers, Lyfts or other designated drivers. The costs of the potential legal liability in permitting an intoxicated employee to drive are far greater than any taxi fare.

3. Clarify expectations of appropriate workplace behavior: More poor behavior occurs at company holiday parties than at any other time of year. Thus, in advance of the party, circulate a memorandum to all employees reminding them to act professionally at the upcoming event and provide tips to do so, such as limiting alcohol consumption, dressing appropriately, specifying that the company is not sponsoring any after-party and discouraging gift exchanging at the party.

4. Hold the event offsite: For insurance and liability purposes.

5. Send out policy reminders: Remind employees that, even if the party is offsite and not during working hours, employees are still obligated to comply with the company’s anti-harassment policies and will be subject to discipline if they behave inappropriately during the event. As a further precaution, recirculate the company’s anti-harassment policy to all employees prior to the party and remind supervisors that they have an obligation to report any violations of policy. If the company has not provided employees with anti-harassment training recently, now is a great time to do so.

6. Avoid triggers for bad behavior:  For example, do not have Santa Claus visit and invite employees to sit on his lap, and best not to have any mistletoe. Also consider eliminating dancing to prevent close contact where inappropriate touching may occur. If the budget permits, invite significant others or families to the event as this may encourage employees to remain on their best behavior.

7.Keep the theme and décor for the party non-religious: Rather than calling it a “holiday” party, consider making it an “End-of-Year Party,” a “Winter Social,” or a “Snowy Soiree.” Eliminate any religious symbolism in order to prevent employees who do not celebrate these holidays or share particular religious beliefs from feeling excluded or alleging discrimination. You can still be festive, just stick to winter themes and décor to avoid offending or excluding any employees.

8. Keep it optional:  If the party is held after working hours, attendance must be voluntary, and all work-related business excluded so you do not run afoul of wage and hour laws that may require payment to non-exempt employees for their attendance. Make the invitation clear that employees may opt out without penalty or any negative connotation.

9. Show appreciation by giving employees what they really want: Get input from your employees to better understand their preferences. Perhaps it is no party at all, or a low-key holiday luncheon rather than an after-hours event, or maybe everyone loves a nighttime event, but they have suggestions for what should be involved in that celebration. While you will never get a unanimous consensus or be able to satisfy everyone, asking for input from employees will make them feel more included.

10. Do something else: Perhaps scrap the party altogether for less risky alternatives such as attending sporting events, bowling or painting parties. Team building and community service projects are also popular alternatives. Another option is to take the holiday party budget and give it back to employees in the form of a year-end bonus or extra paid time off, particularly if employees have stated this as their preference.

Although it will be impossible for an employer to completely avoid the risks associated with a party, by implementing these tips, employers can minimize those risks and provide their employees with a safe and happy celebration. However, should a problem arise, it is critical that employers take every complaint seriously and promptly conduct a thorough investigation.

Melissa Salimbene and Lindsay Dischley are both members at Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi, working in the Employment Law Group. Salimbene is the practice group leader.