Not only do holiday parties hosted by employers demonstrate appreciation of employees, they also keep tradition alive and boost company morale. However, every large gathering brings attendant risks and concerns. Several employee-related lawsuits suggest potential dangers and ways employers should protect themselves. PMP calls the holiday season our “busy season” because clients call with concerns regarding conduct that occurred during a holiday party. We see an increase in claims of harassment and discrimination arising from situations which developed after employees have had a drink or two. These steps will assist employers or party hosts in avoiding legal pitfalls:
1. Employees should be reminded, prior to the event, that it is a professional gathering in honor of work well done rather than to celebrate a religious event. 2. Choose the venue wisely. Firms with multiple operations or departments should issue instructions describing suitable venues for year-end parties. Employees have brought suits against firms whose local offices have held parties at inappropriate locations, such as those considered sexually offensive or discriminatory. 3. Check accessibility. Before choosing a party venue, make sure it’s accessible to any employees with disabilities or special needs. 4. Restrict alcohol consumption. Work with the caterer, restaurant, or bar to limit the number of alcoholic beverages served to employees. Use drink tickets to help control consumption. If the party includes a cash-bar, provide free non-alcoholic drinks for designated drivers. 5. Employers should strongly encourage people to drink responsibly. The employer/host should not give someone who is drunk more alcohol. 6. Access ability of attendees to get home safely. Appoint a company supervisor to consider whether an employee or other attendee can drive or otherwise get home safely, and make appropriate travel arrangements for them if necessary. 7. Brief supervisors. Remind supervisors that office parties are an extension of the workplace and they need to respond to discrimination or harassment situations as they would during the course of business. Provide a brief overview to supervisors of company policies regarding the party, alcohol, and sexual harassment. 8. Employers should never provide alcohol or access to alcohol to employees, interns or volunteers under the age of 21. 9. Investigate all complaints. Failure to respond to complaints can lead to greater liability than what results from the alleged misconduct. Don’t dismiss any complaints associated with the company’s holiday party without conducting a prompt and thorough investigation and taking remedial action if warranted. 10. Keep it informal by (1) not offering compensation for attendance; (2) having attendance be voluntary; and, (3) limiting the number of clients.
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