Key Considerations When Throwing a Company-Sponsored Holiday Party

As the holiday season approaches, many companies are planning and throwing parties for their employees without considering and taking steps to minimize the potential liability that can result. While holiday parties can be a great morale booster, they can be filled with potential problems, especially when alcohol is served. Indeed, alcohol plus a party atmosphere is a recipe for liability. Alcohol releases inhibitions; people are "dressed up" in party-wear that otherwise would not meet the office dress code; and activities such as dancing, games, and contests provide opportunities for "hanky-panky." Employers can be held liable for sexual harassment claims that result from such party conduct.

Additionally, employers have been held liable for third-party tort claims resulting from actions taken by inebriated employees leaving company sponsored-events, such as claims of property damage or wrongful death from accidents caused by these employees while driving home while intoxicated from the company-sponsored party.

Thus, party planning should include consideration of the potential liability that can result, and steps should be taken to mitigate potential liability:

  • Employers should have and disseminate a strong policy prohibiting sexual harassment at work and at work-sponsored events, such as parties, picnics, conventions, etc.
  • Remind employees, prior to the event, that sexual harassment is prohibited.
  • Remind managers that they always wear the "manager" hat and are still responsible for enforcing company policies during the party.
  • Consider having the event during the work day so that alcohol does not need to be served, or have it during the week after work, so that employees will limit their drinking since they will have to be at work the next morning.
  • Consider having the party at the office or a restaurant rather than a hotel to limit the party hours and easy access to extended post-party conduct.
  • Consider having drink tickets to limit the amount of individual alcohol consumption.
  • Assign individuals who will "chaperone" the party and monitor for misbehavior or intoxication.
  • Hire a professional bartender who has the exclusive authority to pour drinks and cut people off.
  • Make sure there are plenty of non-alcoholic beverages available.
  • Serve foods rich in starch and protein, which stay in the stomach longer and slow down the absorption of alcohol.
  • Arrange for alternate transportation, such as designated drivers or company-paid taxis.
  • Serve alcohol for a limited time during the party and make sure that alcohol service ends before the party officially ends.
  • Consider serving a limited selection of alcohol, such as beer and wine only, rather than a full bar.
  • Enforce a "no shots" rule.
  • Monitor conduct and do not be afraid to intervene if conduct becomes inappropriate or alcohol consumption becomes excessive.

Lillian Chaves Moon is a shareholder in the Orlando, Fla., office of Jackson Lewis P.C. She devotes the majority of her practice to employment litigation, defending employers in federal and state courts, as well as before the EEOC and other administrative agencies. As a member of the firm's Privacy, Social Media and Information Management Practice, she also devotes a significant portion of her practice to counseling clients regarding privacy law obligations and policies, data breach issues, and electronic signature, HIPAA, ERISA, and Privacy Act requirements when establishing corporate electronic recruitment, application, and on-boarding websites, policies, and processes.

Posted by Lillian Chaves Moon on Nov 24, 2014