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Holiday Party Planning & Avoiding Legal Issues

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At this time of year, companies everywhere are beginning to plan their holiday parties and get-togethers.  Such parties can prove to be a great motivational event and serve as a thank you for a job well done. Regrettably, the confluence of religious expression, social interaction, and alcohol consumption can also result in a wonderful January for plaintiffs’ lawyers.  

Awareness of the issues and careful planning are the best precautionary measures. By taking a few steps you can take to ensure that your company has a great holiday while remaining free from any legal issues in the new year.

The Name Of The Event

  • The first step is, "What do you call your event if you want to avoid offending someone"?  The short answer...there is no answer. If you call it a Christmas party, those who don’t celebrate the occasion may feel excluded. If you call it a seasonal celebration, then those who celebrate Christmas may feel you’re demeaning their holiday by using a surrogate name.   The best you can do balance competing considerations, albeit imperfectly, by calling the event a holiday party.

Business Or Pleasure

  • Avoid making your celebration an "attendance required" event, handing out awards, bonuses or conducting other business activities as this may increase company liability.  In situations where such activities as those noted above have taken place, many courts have ruled the event a "work function". If attendance is not required, clearly state that in all invitation material and let employees know that time spent at the event will be unpaid and not considered as “hours worked.”  Don’t “encourage” attendance, either by implying that attendance will help the employee advance in the organization or by implying that failure to attend will indicate that the employee is not a “team player.”  
  • Be cautious about inviting vendors, clients or others with whom you have a business relationship. Again, this can give the perception that the event is business related.     
  • Plan the activity or event at an off-site location and during the weekends when possible. Doing so supports the fact that the events were strictly social and not work-related.
  • Invite adult family members (it's best to avoid minors if there's plans to have alcohol), spouses or significant others. This also supports the fact that the event is not business-related. 

Activities & Location

  • Provide activities and entertainment that appeal to a broad range of employees to avoid making anyone feel left out.
  • Don’t create an atmosphere conducive to sexual harassment by providing risque or potentially offensive forms of entertainment such as comedy clubs, casinos, risque bars and nightclubs.

Alcohol Or Not

  • Beware of alcohol and, if feasible, avoid having it at the event. For many, not having any alcohol at a holiday party isn't an option, but you can still take steps to minimize potential issues.  
  • Prior to the event ensure that all employees understand company expectations of courtesy and respect and that company policies, including the code of conduct, the policy against harassment and the discipline policy, apply to these activities.
  •  Make clear in pre-function communications that employees under the influence must stay out of the driver’s seat.
  • Have a bartender serve the alcohol. Letting employees serve themselves can encourage them to help themselves too often and pour too generously.
  • Establish a maximum number of drinks that an individual can have.
  • Make available cab vouchers that employees can use without having to go to a manager. 
  • Assign certain managers to keep their eyes and ears open for individuals who appear intoxicated at the party.
  • Serve plenty of nonalcoholic beverages and lots of food.
  • Shorten the happy hour.
  • Consider requiring employees to pay for their alcoholic drinks, then donate the payments to a charity.
  • “Last call” should be held at least two hours before the end of the event, to help prevent DWIs. 

A little bit of common sense before the holiday party can help employers avoid big headaches afterwards.