Company Holiday Parties & Tips for Avoiding Liability

The holidays are upon us, and that means holiday parties. While holiday parties are a good time to reflect on the year and gather employees to boost morale and camaraderie, they also have potential employment law pitfalls that employers should plan to avoid. If throwing a company-sponsored holiday party, employers should keep the following in mind:

  1. Prevent Sexual Harassment. Although the #MeToo movement has not changed the legal requirements related to sexual harassment, it has certainly brought such issues to the top of employer’s minds, and it should stay there during the holiday season and any holiday parties. Ensure that your employees are aware of your anti-harassment policy and that they understand that harassment involving any employee at any time, including at a holiday party, will not be tolerated. Remind your employees that, while they are encouraged to have a good time at the holiday party, it is a company-sponsored event where all of the policies and rules of the company apply. If you become aware of inappropriate conduct that occurs at the holiday party, you should deal with it appropriately. Additionally, if you receive complaints about activities related to the holiday party, you must document the incident and do a proper investigation to deal with those issues.
  2. Reduce the Risk of Alcohol-Related Incidents. Employers may be subject to liability for injuries caused by employees who consume alcohol at employer-sponsored events. To avoid potential liability, employers should promote responsible drinking and monitor alcohol consumption appropriately. Employers may want to consider hosting their holiday parties at a restaurant or other off-site location where alcohol is served by professional bartenders who know how to recognize and respond to guests who are visibly intoxicated.
  3. Minimize the Risk of Workers’ Compensation Liability. Workers’ compensation benefits may be available to employees who suffer a work-related injury or illness. To avoid this liability at a company-sponsored holiday party, the employer should make it clear that there is no business purpose to the event, that attendance is completely voluntary, and that they are not being compensated for their attendance at the event. Illnesses caused by contaminants found in food or beverages may create legal exposure if the providers are not properly licensed, so companies should use licensed third-parties who have their own insurance coverage to provide food and beverages.
  4. Prevent Wage and Hour Claims. Non-exempt employees must be paid for all work-related events that they are required to attend. Therefore, to ensure that the time spent at a holiday party is not considered compensable under state or federal wage and hour law, employers should make it clear that attendance is completely voluntary, hold the party outside of normal working hours, and ensure that no work is performed during the party and that employees are not under the impression that they are performing work.