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No Regrets: 10 Tips to Avoid Holiday Party Liability
Holiday Tea Cup
December 4, 2017

The season for organizational holiday parties has begun: As many diverse workers, all trying to “fit in” with their many different beliefs and traditions isn’t enough, add alcoholic beverages to the mix and you have a recipe for disaster – Just when you thought this was a time of fun and celebration! Yes, an HR Manager’s nightmare! How do you navigate this without incurring liability? We have outlined TEN helpful hints to help!

1: Ensure all Policies and Training for said Policies are Current

Make sure all of your policies and training for those policies are up-to-date. We do not want your organization to be the next one in the news for Sexual Harassment – “Do we?” Employees have become sensitized to these issues, but may not fully understand their obligations and the potential pitfalls of their actions. Make sure that applicable policies (such as harassment, retaliation, drug and alcohol use, workplace violence, wage and hour, and dress code) are up-to-date. Provide examples (positive and negative) – it does help!

2: Consider Venue to Keep it Business-Like

Ideally, you should consider having the event off-site. That way, a venue with its own liquor license, insurance and appropriate ambiance (e.g., more business-oriented) can be your “subject matter expert” in this area. If the event will be held on-site for cost or other reasons, make sure you have the proper insurance to cover any possible “situation”! You may also want to hire outside vendors and check the contracts for these services. Make sure if they include clauses like “hold harmless”/indemnification clauses, that you negotiate around these if possible (remember they are the experts in this area, not you).

3: Be Mindful of Your Organization’s Diversity

Use good judgment in party planning for employees of diverse religious beliefs and backgrounds, as they will likely be attending and interacting at your organization’s event. Reduce the risk of offending anyone by following these guidelines:

  • Check calendars to ensure that the planned event does not fall on a religious holiday.
  • Choose a nondenominational theme such as “holiday party,” “winter celebration”, “annual banquet”, instead of “Christmas party” or the like.
  • Avoid religious-based party decor.
  • Discourage gift exchanges through traditions like “Secret Santa,” whether meant to be sincere or humorous (“gag gifts” – unless your organization uses marketing items from your organization to distribute to all).
  • Eliminate traditions, like having employees sit on Santa’s lap, or other invitations for bad-behavior.
  • Ensure that food offerings do not conflict with anyone’s religious beliefs or customs by offering a variety of options (vegetarian, kosher, etc.).

4: Protect Against Inappropriate Liaisons

To reduce the risk of inappropriate liaisons, perhaps you want to allow employees to bring a spouse or other guest, or perhaps make the party a family event. It may increase initial costs, but it could save legal costs down the road! Perhaps you want to have an “Employee Only” party during work hours if you have it on site – explaining all work rules apply!

5: Safe Transportation/Lodging Options

Think about having safe transportation and/or lodging options. The organization should encourage responsible drinking (if you have any at all). Perhaps you have a “cash bar” for alcoholic beverages, and a “free bar” for non-alcoholic drinks.

6: Keep it Social – No Business!

Plan to keep it social. It should be a voluntary event, especially if you hold it outside of work hours, to avoid having the event be considered compensable working time for non-exempt employees. Also avoid asking non-exempt employees to perform duties at the event for the benefit of the employer, like: picking up party supplies; setting up at the event; acting as a DJ; making or passing food; tending bar; restocking tables; cleaning up; and similar activities. If you do need employee help, consider using Exempt Workers – everyone likes to have the Management wait on them for an event – it adds to the fun! Or, just hire outside help! Keep business out of it – no business speeches, or doing business allowed or the time may be compensable for Non-Exempt workers!

7: Communicate Expectations in Advance

An effective way to do this is by communicating to employees a week or two before the event, reminding them of the details (time and location, etc.) and clearly outlining expectations, including:

  • Reminding employees of the applicable company policies for the event
  • Cautioning that alcohol should be consumed only in a safe and responsible manner
  • Identifying transportation and lodging options, if appropriate, to encourage responsible choices
  • Confirming that attendance at the event is voluntary and is not compensable work time. Make sure you word it in a way that does not take the FUN out of the invitation!

8: Be Responsible Where Alcohol is Concerned

Serve alcohol responsibly, if at all! (The simplest ways to avoid risk is to avoid serving alcohol altogether.) If you do serve liquor, perhaps you wish to limit it to Wine and Beer, or have the event at lunchtime. Always have a professional serve the alcoholic beverages that has liability insurance; knows how to, and does check ID; and recognizes if someone is intoxicated so they can refuse to serve the person at that time (you would also want them to report that to a Senior Manager for their information). Employees should not be permitted to act as bartenders or otherwise serve drinks to co-workers. Nonalcoholic beverages should be openly offered and encouraged. Make sure you have enough food to adequately offset alcohol consumption. It is also advisable to close the bar an hour or so before the party ends and serve only coffee, tea, and soft drinks until the end. You may have to have something to have the employees remain until the end when the “Bar” is closed, so consider entertainment, activities, or raffle/door prizes that can only be won if the party is still in the room!

9: Chaperone the Event Like a High School Dance

Managers and HR representatives should be encouraged to attend the party, so they can monitor the event closely to head off any inappropriate behavior as soon as possible. (Note: If any non-exempt employees act as monitors at the event, they should be paid.) Anyone monitoring the event should not drink alcohol altogether, (or at least limit their alcohol intake). They should also be trained on how to handle inappropriate behavior (e.g., whether to personally attempt to de-escalate a situation, or to call security, etc.). Additionally, they should be trained on how to handle any “situations” – post-party; like making reports to HR or senior managers that may need to be alerted to avoid liability (perhaps an investigation needs to be done, or a warning notice needs to be delivered, etc.).

10: Set a Hard End-Time to the Event

The event should have a definitive start and end time. Consider having a Senior Manager/Owner provide concluding remarks at the defined end time and thank everyone for coming. This way, it will be quite clear when the party is over. They can also take the opportunity to reiterate the message to travel home safely and remind people of alternative methods of transportation or lodging rather than driving under the influence.

If you still need some guidance in this area, give KardasLarson a call and we will be happy to help”

Lois Krause

Lois Krause

Author

With 25+ years of experience, Lois Krause's HR strengths include labor law, employee relations, OD, and performance management. Lois has advanced HR certifications.

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