Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | October 4, 2010

Tips for Throwing Company Holiday Parties……Without Being Sued

HR Professionals Get the Gift of Legal Advice This Holiday Season
By Christopher J. Boman, Fisher & Phillips LLP

The end of the calendar year and the holiday season are often ideal times for companies to thank employees for their hard work and celebrate the successes of the company. But with the let-loose attitude of holiday parties, employers often disregard the liabilities involved in throwing a company bash, especially when alcohol is being served. Employment law experts warn human resource professionals and company leaders to be aware of potential liability they could face, especially those that could spark a lawsuit.

Legal experts commonly are called upon this time of year to help employers identify and avoid possible legal issues that could make for an unpleasant event or even lead to situations where employers could find themselves in a serious legal battle. Each year a significant number of employers report behavioral problems at their company holiday party, including hurt feelings, excessive drinking, off-color jokes, sexual advances and fist fights. These types of issues may lead to employee complaints and possible disciplinary grounds, up to and including termination. However, if a party goes awry, and the only resulting ramification ends at some type of discipline issue, then an employer can consider himself fortunate. In other instances, the employer could find himself defending a lawsuit. It’s natural for employers to want to reward a year of dedicated service to the company. While that in itself doesn’t pose an issue, it’s how employers handle the celebration that becomes important. Before the festivities begin, employers need to be cognizant of the legal liabilities they could face if precautions are not taken.

Company leaders are encouraged to consider some of the tips below when planning their end-of-year celebrations and holiday events.

•    Keep Religion Out of the Party―Employers should avoid any religious ties to holiday parties, and ensure the celebration is more focused on gratitude for the year’s successes. Keep in mind that a Christmas party may appear insensitive to some employees and throwing a generic holiday party will ensure everyone feels comfortable, included and will support the intended effect of the party—to boost morale and thank everyone for a job well done.
•    The Not-So-Open Bar―Don’t have an “open bar” where employees can drink as much as they want. Over indulgence can affect employees’ judgment and create a slew of negative repercussions. Instead, have a cash bar or use a ticket system to limit the number of drinks served.
•    Let a Pro Control the Flow―Hire professional bartenders and instruct them to report anyone who they feel has “over enjoyed.” Ensure that bartenders require positive identification from guests who do not appear to be substantially over 21. If an employer uses supervisors as bartenders and something goes awry, the employer can be held strictly liable for any misconduct by the supervisors. Additionally, allowing supervisors to dispense alcohol to subordinates may undermine their authority with those they manage.
•    Drive Away Liability Issues―Arrange for a no-cost taxi service for any employee who feels that he or she should not drive home from the holiday event. Also, if business owners host a party at their home and are serving alcohol, they should be aware of the personal liability they may face if someone drives away from the party drunk.
•    Invite Their Better Half―Invite spouses and significant others so that there will be someone there to help keep an eye on your employees and, if necessary, get them home safely.
•    Rules Are Rules―Remind employees that, while you encourage them to have a good time, your company’s normal workplace standards of conduct will be in force at the party and misconduct at or after the party can result in disciplinary action.
•    Avoid Any Company “Sponsored” After Parties―When the party is over, it should be over. After parties undermine a controlled professional holiday party environment and should be avoided by supervisors especially.
•    Consider Alternative Celebrations―Companies can take a portion of the money traditionally spent on the holiday party and donate it to a charity in need. Another option is to consider a company potluck or other event that’s still social and fun.
•    Avoid Mixing Lavish Parties & Layoffs―Consider the message sent by throwing an extravagant party after conducting layoffs. Can you justify the celebration costs when foregoing it could have kept a few staff members employed for a few months? Morale of current staff concerned about additional layoffs could also be an issue, as well as the potential for lawsuits from disgruntled former staff that hear about the party.

About the Author: Christopher J. Boman is a partner with the management-side labor and employment law firm of Fisher & Phillips LLP in its Irvine, Calif. office. With a focus on both preventive counseling and defense of claims, Mr. Boman emphasizes the business and legal objectives of his clients to optimize their compliance in today’s challenging marketplace. He can be reached at 949-851-2424 or cboman@laborlawyers.com.

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