Unlike Hollywood Fantasy, Real Life Holiday Parties Do Not Always Have a Happy Ending
The new film, Office Christmas Party, about a group of managers trying to save their branch office from closure by throwing an epic party for one of their most important clients, combines the talents of several A-List actors in a formulaic series of zany events designed to entertain moviegoers. The movie looks hilarious. The situations depicted are a human resource nightmare.
Office parties – if not conceived and managed properly – can concoct a veritable punch bowl of liability. From drunk driving, to unwanted sexual advances, to illegal conduct, the road to litigation is often paved with an employer’s good intentions. Recognizing the potential pitfalls is the first step in creating peace of mind for the employer before, during, and after, a company-sponsored social event.
The duty of employers to maintain a safe work environment extends to office parties. This can be a particularly tricky situation when alcohol is served. For example, employers may be held liable for an employee’s drunk driving arising from company-sponsored events. According to a 2012 study by the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM), 33% of companies have a formal or informal alcohol policy that they enforce year- round. A good policy that is followed helps lessen the risk that alcohol-related claims will be filed against the employer. For added protection, it is recommended that the policy be reissued prior to any event. If a company does not have an established policy, an employer may consider circulating to all employees the company expectations for appropriate conduct during a party. An employer in this case may also want to consult legal counsel about the viability of including a liability waiver in the policy on company-sponsored events.
If an employer decides to serve alcohol, there are other ways to reduce liability, such as ensuring that there is plenty of food and a variety of non-alcoholic beverages. Other suggestions for employers to consider involve providing post-festivities transportation to its employees or ending the party before public transportation stops running.
The ability of an employer to navigate the consequences of drinking at corporate functions extends beyond the issue of transportation. Alcohol consumption can reduce inhibitions, which may give rise to sexually aggressive, bullying, or discriminatory conduct. Like the duty of maintaining a safe work environment, an employer’s duty to prevent harassment also extends to office functions. Harassing conduct is arguably foreseeable when alcohol is served at company parties; therefore, this type of misconduct could be actionable. One way to mitigate the exposure is to republish the company’s harassment and discrimination policies prior to the event. If a company does not have a policy, this would be an excellent opportunity to draft and distribute one. We suggest including, at the time of redistribution, examples of offensive and unwelcome conduct that are covered by the policy.
Employers have many issues to contend with during this time of year. Fear of litigation over a gesture meant to enhance morale and reward employees should not be one of them. If you are concerned about your policies and processes or would like to review the details regarding a future company event, please contact Workplace FactFinders at (844) 321-9733 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please be advised that the information contained in this article is not legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Employers should consult their attorneys for legal advice.
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