Question:

The holidays are just around the corner, and my business is planning our annual holiday party. We want our employees to have a great time, but we want to make sure that everyone is safe. In preparing for the party, what should we do to protect our employees and minimize potential legal liability?

Answer:

When planning your holiday party, there are several issues to consider. As an employer, you want to reward your employees for a year of hard work. Simultaneously, you do not want anyone to be harmed or have anything happen that could jeopardize the livelihood of your business. Therefore, it is best to take various precautionary measures in attempt to satisfy all of your holiday party goals.

As you may know, excessive drinking can cause holiday party problems. When not properly controlled, alcohol consumption can lead to accidents, altercations, discrimination, sexual harassment, and other unwanted consequences. Notably, the ramifications of those and other incidents may result in employer liability.

Under California law, a social host is generally not liable for injuries and property damage caused by an individual who becomes intoxicated at a business’s holiday party. However, businesses must still exercise caution to keep employees safe and minimize civil and criminal liability. In addition, workers’ compensation insurance may not cover injuries resulting from social activities such as holiday parties. Thus, in order to minimize potential liability, businesses should take the following preventative steps.

First, employers should discourage excessive drinking. This can be accomplished by monitoring alcohol consumption at the event to ensure that excessive drinking does not occur. Some employers choose to hire a professional bartender to monitor alcohol consumption. A bartender acts as a neutral third party who will not be embarrassed to stop serving intoxicated guests. Employers can also discourage excess consumption by charging for drinks at a cash bar or by issuing drink vouchers. Employers may also decide to only serve beer and wine, or to not serve alcohol at all, or limit all guests to two drinks. Management should set the tone and provide a good example by avoiding over consumption.

It is also important to make sure that there is plenty of food and non-alcoholic beverages available. Guests should also be informed that alcohol will not be served after a specified time, which should be at least an hour before the party ends. Further, individuals should be designated to oversee the event and identify guests in need of assistance, and transportation should be arranged in order to get everyone home safely. Specifically, employers should either provide a free of charge taxi service or have designated drivers established.

Businesses should also be aware of the increased potential for discrimination and sexual harassment during holiday parties. In a social environment where alcohol is being served, employees and guests may be less restrained than they are at work. As a result, employers should closely monitor the behavior of employees and guests at their holiday party. This may be a good time to redistribute your company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, and to let employees know that such policies apply at the holiday party. As a reminder, employers may be liable for discrimination and sexual harassment that occurs while employees are off-duty.

Finally, in consideration of those who choose not to attend, employees should be informed that attendance is not mandatory. At the party, businesses should make sure that their actions are respectful and non-discriminatory in the eyes of all guests. Specifically, it is important to keep your holiday party as religiously and culturally neutral as possible in all aspects. Decorations and celebrations should not be overly religious, as there will likely be guests with differing faiths in attendance.

In sum, it is extremely important to properly plan for your holiday party and to monitor the actions of the guests at the party. By doing so, employers can reward their employees while minimizing the risk of potential liability and provide a festive event for all to enjoy.
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