Happy Holidays! Here's a Lawsuit!

The holiday celebration season is in full swing and everyone is ready to celebrate! And while that hopefully means reflecting on successes of the past year and bonding with coworkers, employers need to be aware of their exposure to potential liability arising from holiday celebrations and what they need to do to reduce or avoid such potential liability. While not to drive the joy out of the holidays, here are some common concerns employers should be aware of during the holiday season and tips on how to reduce employers’ risk:

  1. Is That Mistletoe?: Prevent Sexual Harassment. In light of the continued focus on the #MeToo movement, employers should stay focused on preventing sexual harassment during the holiday season, which includes any holiday party where coworkers congregate or socialize together. 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 your employment policies and rules apply. If you become aware of inappropriate conduct that occurs at the holiday party, you must deal with it appropriately in the same manner as you would address such an incident had it occurred in the workplace. Additionally, if you receive complaints post-party about activities that may have occurred at the holiday party, you must document the incident, do a proper investigation to deal with those issues, and take prompt corrective action, if necessary.
  2. Hey, What’s in This Drink?: 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 either not serving alcohol or 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. Employers may also consider providing information regarding or paying for a ride-sharing service such as Uber or Lyft to promote responsible behavior.
  3. It’s Icy Outside!: Minimize the Risk of Workers’ Compensation Liability. Workers’ compensation benefits may be available to employees who suffer a work-related injury or illness arising from an employer-sponsored holiday party. To avoid this liability employers 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 employers should use licensed third-party vendors who have their own insurance coverage to provide food and beverages.
  4. Am I Required to Be Here?: 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, ensure that no work is performed during the party, and make sure that employees are not under the impression that they are performing work.
  5. Happy Non-Denominational Holiday Celebration!: Avoiding Religious Discrimination Claims. An employer’s holiday party or year-end celebration should be about the people who work there and the accomplishments of the organization, not a particular set of religious beliefs unless, of course, you are a religious organization. Employees of all religious and ethnic backgrounds need to feel invited and welcome to attend. Additionally, if employees do not want to attend based on their particular beliefs or practices, an employer may not discriminate or retaliate against the employee for that choice.

So, for this 2019 holiday season, we hope that you spread the joy of the season, have fun, be safe, appreciate the hard work of your employees, and avoid the employment law pitfalls that can come with the holidays!

The Labor & Employment Law Practice Group, O’Neil, Cannon, Hollman, DeJong & Laing S.C.