Cheers Without Fears: An Employer's Guide to Holiday Parties

Written by Robert A. Wiesen

As leaves begin to fall and word-a-day calendars grow thin, many employers begin plans for end-of-the-year holiday parties. Parties can be a great way to celebrate the prior year, thank workers for their efforts and improve employee commitment to the organization. Poorly planned, however, such events can lead to expensive, unexpected problems.

With the year soon drawing to a close, the following “Top 10” list should be a useful guide to limiting an employer’s legal headaches following a holiday party.

10. Social Media. Employers should remember that, particularly in a social setting, the questionable antics of a manager or embarrassing moments of a co-worker can be instantly and irrevocably published through social media websites. From both a legal and corporate public relations standpoint, therefore, it is important to monitor the behavior of guests. A viral YouTube video or trending Twitter topic involving your employees in a bad light can be the worst type of hangover from a holiday party.

9. Religious Discrimination. A number of religious holidays coincide with the end of the calendar year. Employers should consider whether parties with religious-based themes are worth the risk of employees potentially feeling left out by the festivities.

8. Confidential Materials. Employers in a number of industries, including healthcare, finance, legal, etc., are required to maintain the confidentiality of various types of information. Likewise, the value of secrecy in certain trade and commercial matters cannot be overstated. For employers planning on-site parties with non-employee guests, procedures should be implemented to ensure that confidential information is not left available for unauthorized access.

7. “After Hours” Parties. Frequently, employees and managers will continue their festivities at other locations long after the employer-sponsored event has ended. A lack of clarity over the end time of a party can lead to questions of whether such informal gatherings represent a continuation of the official party and, in turn, liability exposure for the employer for actions and comments that might occur during such gatherings. Employer-sponsored parties with definite end times (e.g., 8:00 p.m. to midnight) can help distinguish the official party from later gatherings at other locations to which the employer may not want to affiliate itself.

6. Non-Employee Guests. While an additional expense, non-employee guests can bring several benefits to an employer-sponsored party. Employees, while in the presence of a spouse or significant other, may be less likely to engage in harassing behavior of co-workers. Couples may be more likely to designate a driver. Lastly, the invitation of spouses and significant others can convey a message of commitment to the employee as a whole which, in turn, can improve employee job satisfaction.

5. Sexual Harassment. Sometimes a challenge to control under normal work conditions, sexual harassment can become even more problematic to prevent in a social, party setting. Updated harassment policies, including references to employer-sponsored social events, as well as monitoring of party conduct can help limit the potential for harassment issues.

4. Transportation. Inebriated or exhausted drivers can create a host of legal and public relations problems for employers. As part of the process of budgeting a holiday party that will involve alcohol or late hours, employers may wish to consider arrangements to get guests home safely.

3. Location. An off-premises party at an establishment with a liquor license carries a number of potential benefits. Among other things, a licensed off-site facility should be able to offer one-stop shopping for: (1) insurance coverage for social functions; (2) safe food preparation and storage; (3) more readily available transportation options (e.g., taxi service at a hotel); (4) trained bartenders and (5) sufficient guest parking. In short, an off-site location can ease the implementation of other measures to limit potential holiday party legal problems.

2. Alcohol. Responsible alcohol consumption can help limit a host of potential liabilities. Alcohol should only be served by a bartender experienced in identifying and handling excessive inebriation issues.

1. Communication. Done in a manner consistent with the fun and frivolity of a party, employee communications before the party can be a useful tool in setting out acceptable behaviors for a work-related, social event. Advance efforts to limit the conditions from which employer liability can grow is one of the most efficient ways to plan a successful holiday party.

About the Author
Robert A. Wiesen
Mr. Wiesen is an “AV” rated lawyer – the highest rating by Martindale-Hubbell for legal ability...
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