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Holiday party pitfalls

Holiday party pitfalls

By John Glynn

Holiday parties can be a great chance to relax, mingle and celebrate with employees and clients, but they can also be fraught with pitfalls, both legal and social. Renee E. Starr, a solo employment law attorney who advises Oregon and Washington employers, discussed some of the drawbacks in a recent GPSolo magazine article.

Holiday party pitfalls

Holiday parties can be a great chance to relax, mingle and celebrate with employees and clients, but they can also be fraught with pitfalls, both legal and social. Renee E. Starr, a solo employment law attorney who advises Oregon and Washington employers, discussed some of the drawbacks in a recent GPSolo magazine article.

Holiday party conduct can expose employers to complaints of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or similar state laws, Starr pointed out. Employee complaints may arise from potentially sexually harassing behavior but also harassment based on any other protected characteristic, such as religion, race or national origin. Employees tend to relax their inhibitions at holiday parties, especially if alcohol is served, and this relaxed behavior may open the door to allegations relating to a potentially hostile work environment. As a result, sexual and other harassment incidents may be more likely to occur during a holiday office social event than during any other workday.

Employers may also face the risk of civil liability for injuries or damages caused by an intoxicated partygoer after an office holiday party, Starr said. This may include harm to the employee, to his or her guest or to an unrelated third party. Depending on state law, the employer may have liability as a social host serving alcohol. To avoid or mitigate these risks, you should give some thoughtful consideration to your office holiday party plans. Here are some suggestions from Starr.

Whom do I invite?

The primary legal concern about the invitation list is that it is not discriminatory to your employees. If your plan is to invite all employees, then invite all employees. Do not exclude certain employees; this exclusion may be used against you later as a basis for discrimination. For example, not extending the invitation to the employee who doesn’t drink (“he won’t come anyway, you know he doesn’t drink”), the single parent (“she probably can’t get a babysitter”) or the Muslim employee (“they don’t celebrate the holidays”) can lead to liability.

If you are inviting spouses, be sure the invitations include spouses, domestic partners or other guests. If the event is for adults only, the invitation should say so. If families and children are welcome, keep in mind that families come in all shapes and sizes. And in all cases, the invitation should make clear that employee attendance at your holiday party is voluntary. Employees should never be penalized for opting out.

What do I call it?

An employer-sponsored holiday party is an extension of your workplace, so what you call it, how you decorate it and when you schedule it should not be discriminatory — based on religion or any other factor. As a practical matter, keep it respectful and representational of the diversity in your workplace. The office party must never be used as a time to proselytize. Talk with your employees and get their input or contribution on the holiday theme and party decorations.

Scheduling the holiday party can be difficult. For that reason, some employers choose to host an after-holiday party, in part, to avoid being seen as promoting or excluding any one holiday tradition over another.  

Do I serve alcohol?

Alcohol heightens the risk of legal liability resulting from the office party, but many employers decide it is a calculated risk worth taking for the employee morale and camaraderie that can come from a well-orchestrated holiday party.

If you do serve alcohol, make sure you hire a professional server. Serve only to those employees and their guests who are over 21, and ensure there are plenty of nonalcoholic beverages and food available, too. Make arrangements ahead of time for safe transportation options for employees and their guests who have had too much to drink, such as encouraging public transit or providing cab rides. Communicate to employees about their available options and encourage them to plan ahead.

If you are hosting the party during work hours in the workplace, make sure employees are informed of your workplace drug and alcohol policies. Set clear guidelines and expectations about returning to work following the party, if applicable.

If you are the host, make sure you and your supervisors set the tone and keep it professional. This may be a celebration, but it is still an extension of the workplace. Alcohol may relax your employees’ inhibitions. Some employees may engage in conduct that they might not otherwise pursue at work. Employees should be reminded ahead of time that the company’s harassment policies are still in full force and effect.

What etiquette and conduct issues could arise?

Both employees and employers should remember to keep office party conduct professional. The employer and supervisory staff should set the standard. This starts with appropriate dress. Dress can be festive but still professional. Keep in mind that these are your colleagues, and how you dress at the holiday party will be remembered all year.

The holiday office party is an important time to mix and mingle with employees, including those you don’t often work closely with. Take advantage of the opportunity to chat, but don’t monopolize anyone’s time. If you are the host, take the initiative to introduce yourself or others; don’t assume that everyone knows everyone. Also, use the time to thank, congratulate and otherwise acknowledge the hard work of your employees and colleagues.

Remember basic confidentiality rules and the duty to maintain client confidences. Office parties can sometimes become an opportunity to swap stories with your colleagues about major successes or debacles from the previous year. Keep in mind that there may be nonemployees present who are not and cannot be privy to the confidential information.

Keep everything in moderation. This starts with drinking but may also include dancing, singing or expressing your undying love for a co-worker. If you do see “that guy” or “that girl” making a fool of himself or herself at the holiday party, consider steering the employee in a better direction. Suggest a quiet moment over a cup of coffee or a cab ride home. Your colleague may thank you the next morning.

For more on “Holiday Nightmares: Tales of What Can Go Wrong When You or Your Client Is Hosting,” check out this CLE webinar sponsored by GPSolo and the Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section. See also ABA Publishing’s “The Little Book of Holiday Law” by Ursula Furi-Perry.

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