November 01, 2013

Careful with That Eggnog: Perils and Pitfalls of the Office Holiday Party

Renee E. Starr

The holidays are coming. It is time to give some thought to hosting an office party. Office parties can be a great opportunity to relax, mingle, and celebrate with employees and sometimes clients, but they can be fraught with pitfalls, both legal and social.

Holiday party conduct can expose the employer to complaints of discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or similar state laws. 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. This may include harm to the employee, to his or her guest, or to an unrelated third party. Employee injuries resulting from the employer-sponsored office party may result in a workers’ compensation claim. Depending on state law, the employer may have liability as a social host serving alcohol. (See “Alcoholic Beverage Law and Hospitality Law” on page 16.) To avoid or mitigate these risks, you should give some thoughtful consideration to your office holiday party plans.

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