With the holidays around the corner, many employers organize parties to promote collegial working relationships and foster a pleasant work environment. While the benefits of holiday parties on employee morale are tangible, they may also present legal risks for employers. The first-and perhaps most obvious-risk arises from alcohol consumption. Courts have not hesitated to find an employer liable for accidents caused by inebriated employees leaving a company function. The courts reason that the party is for the employer's benefit to raise morale and productivity and, therefore, that the employees' actions of drinking and driving are taken within the "course and scope of employment."
Another set of risks stems from anti-discrimination statutes. In a casual environment, fueled by alcohol and socialization, employees are more likely to engage in sexually harassing conduct or to make offensive comments based on protected characteristics like race, ethnicity or national origin.
Employers also need to be careful what they call their holiday parties and how they organize them. Some employees may view a party called a "Christmas Party" as a form of religious discrimination.
To minimize these risks and others, we recommend the following steps:
Take safety precautions by offering to cover cab fare or other transportation after the party.
Emphasize that employees are not required to attend the holiday party. One way to accomplish this is to have the party in a different location, free of religious or gender undertones. This means avoiding churches or clubs that do not allow women or minority members.
Before the party, send a reminder to all employees of your company's workplace policies against harassment and discrimination. Tell the employees that inappropriate conduct, such as gag gifts or touching, and offensive comments will not be tolerated even if the party is not at the workplace.
Ensure that the location of the party is safe by discussing this matter with the location manager. Accidents at work parties may prompt an employee to file workers' compensation claims.
With these precautions, employers will have a stronger case should an employee on post-holiday haze choose to file a complaint. We wish you the best of luck and joy during this holiday season. If you have any questions about this post, please contact any of the attorneys in our Labor and Employment Department Group.