WORKPLACE LAW – ‘Tis the Season for Holiday Party Claims

Question: In light of all of the new sexual harassment rules and regulations, is it still wise for my company to host a holiday party?

Answer: While some companies may be reconsidering whether to hold their traditional holiday party this year, if your company promotes and enforces a harassment free workplace, the new sexual harassment laws should not prevent you from having a party. According to a Society of Human Resource Management Survey, roughly two-thirds of companies host holiday parties for their employees. According to one recent study, about one in three employers reported some misconduct at holiday parties. However, there are some precautions you can take to ensure a safe and festive holiday party and minimize the risk of harassment, discrimination, and workers’ compensation claims.

A common issue at holiday parties that often leads to liability for harassment or workers’ compensation claims is the consumption of too much alcohol, which results in decreased inhibitions and increased risk of offensive or unlawful conduct. Additionally, a business, including an employer, may be liable as a social host if party-goers become intoxicated at the party and injure themselves or others. To avoid such consequences, employers may decide to avoid serving alcohol, or hold the party off-site and employ a professional bartender to monitor and limit guests’ alcohol consumption. Another option is to limit the number of drinks by providing one or two drink tickets to guests. Designate an exempt manager to discreetly observe the behavior of employees and guests to make sure everyone is having a fun and safe party experience.

Employers should also be sensitive to potential religious harassment or discrimination at holiday parties. Employees may be from different cultural or religious backgrounds that do not celebrate the same holidays, or do not celebrate the holidays the same way. To make all feel welcome avoid decorations, greetings, or toasts that are religious, and offer different menu and drink options for guests who do not eat or drink certain foods for cultural or religious reasons.

Workers’ compensation claims may arise from injuries sustained at a holiday party if the injuries are work-related. In order to minimize the risk of a claim, employers should make it clear that attendance at the party is completely voluntary, hold the party during off-duty hours, and refrain from engaging in any business during the party. Holding the party at a location other than company premises may also lessen the risk of a claim.

Some employers have stopped having holiday parties, and instead participate in holiday “team building” type activities. For example, inviting employees to donate and distribute toys to underprivileged children in the community, collecting items for a local food pantry, or having a clothing drive for a homeless shelter can be strong team-building activities during the holiday season.

No matter what you decide to do, remember that many employer sponsored holiday parties take place each year without incident. If you decide to host a party, enjoy the celebration with your staff. Finally, if the year-round workplace culture is one that does not tolerate discrimination, harassment, or other prohibited conduct, then you should expect that your employees will continue this behavior at the holiday party. Make sure your employee handbook and harassment policies are up-to-date and that all employees adhere to your policies.