Employer Tips for Holiday Parties
It is now December, which means that holiday parties are on the horizon for many employers. As the celebrations are just around the corner, consider the following tips to ensure that no lawsuits appear under the tree this year.
- Do not make holiday parties mandatory
Two primary legal reasons drive this tip. First, under DOL regulations, if an employer makes the party mandatory, employees may have to be compensated for their time as the event is a condition of employment. Second, under anti-discrimination laws, the religious beliefs of some employees may prevent them from attending a holiday party. If a religious practice conflicts with a work requirement (like a mandatory party), it may trigger reasonable accommodation obligations for the employer that will unnecessarily complicate an avoidable situation. Both of these issues can be avoided by making attendance at the holiday party voluntary.
- Limit or prohibit alcohol consumption
As with any company event, limiting alcohol consumption reduces a variety of legal risks for employers. Drink coupon limits, a variety of non-alcoholic drink options, and providing accompanying food will help prevent intoxicated driving and inappropriate behavior. Scheduling the party in the afternoon as opposed to at night can also reduce alcohol-related risks.
The location of the event can also influence employee behavior and mitigate alcohol-related risks. For example, hosting a party on-site in a conference room may lead to better behavior compared to hosting the event downtown in a heavy bar district.
If alcohol is served, consider using professional bartenders trained in identifying intoxicated guests and closing the bar early before the event concludes. Both of these actions can help limit alcohol related risks and liabilities.
- Ensure employees get home safely
Employers should take responsibility for ensuring that all employees get home safely. Companies can consider providing employees with taxi or ride-sharing vouchers or overnight accommodations for parties held at hotels to reduce the risk of intoxicated driving. Intoxicated employees should not be permitted to drive home. In that situation arises, it is better to pay for the employee’s ride home than to send the employee home in the car of a colleague (which could potentially causing additional liability if anything inappropriate occurs while the intoxicated employee is in that colleague’s care).
- Remind employees to act as if they are at work
As a company event, all workplace policies still apply. Employees should be reminded to act and converse as if they were still at the office. This means that employees should still abide by all applicable policies on harassment, dress code, and the code of conduct. Sending employees an email beforehand reminding them of these policies is a best practice. This type of gentle email reminder can also serve as a good opportunity to thank the employees for their hard work throughout the year. Holding events during or immediately after working hours helps prevent against employees arriving in inappropriate outfits.
- Lead by example through company leadership
Asking supervisors and company leadership to set a good example at corporate functions can set the tone for how the rest of the staff should act. Supervisors can also be mindful of checking on any employees during the function.
- Make the event family friendly
Whether for the winter holidays or for Halloween, making company parties "family friendly" can often serve to discourage some of the dangers posed by inappropriate outfits or excessive drinking. Consider making the party family friendly and inviting spouses and children to encourage best behavior. Along the same lines, adult-only decorations like mistletoes should be avoided.
- Follow complaint and investigation policies
Any complaints of harassment, discrimination, or other misconduct arising from a holiday party should be treated in the same manner as any other complaint resulting from "regular" working hours. Complaints cannot be dismissed just because they arose during an office party. Investigation procedures should be initiated promptly and thoroughly in the same way that any workplace complaint would occur.