'Tis the Season: Tips for Avoiding Liability Related to Employer-Sponsored Holiday Parties

It is that time of the year again – the holidays are upon us! Along with the holidays comes holiday parties, which can bring your employees closer together and boost morale. While a fair amount of planning goes into venue, food, and festivities, employers should also plan ahead to avoid potential legal liability that can be associated with a company-sponsored party. The festive atmosphere combined with alcohol consumption can cause the potential for inappropriate behavior or claims relating to injuries suffered during or after the event.

In preparing for a company-sponsored holiday party, employers should take steps to:

1. Prevent Sexual Harassment. The best way to prevent sexual harassment is to educate your employees about your company’s anti-harassment policy and ensure that employees understand that harassment involving any employee, whether within or outside the office, will not be tolerated. To set the tone of the party in advance, you may consider reminding employees that, while they are encouraged to have fun at the holiday party, it is still a company-sponsored event and, accordingly, all company policies and rules apply.

2. Reduce the Risk of Alcohol-Related Accidents.  Employers may be subject to potential liability for injuries caused by employees who consume alcohol at employer-sponsored events. Negligence and Respondeat Superior, which holds employers liable for acts of employees undertaken in the course of their employment, are two examples. Some states, like Illinois, also have “dram shop” or “social host” liability laws, which hold the provider of alcoholic beverages to intoxicated individuals liable for injuries those individuals may cause while intoxicated. To avoid potential liability under these types of theories, employers should promote responsible drinking and monitor alcohol consumption appropriately. Employers may also want to consider holding their holiday party 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 Worker’s Compensation Liability. Generally speaking, worker’s compensation benefits may be available to employees who suffer a work-related injury or illness. In order to minimize the risk of liability for an employee injury or illness that occurs during an employer-sponsored event, employers should make it clear to employees that there is no business purpose for the event, that attendance at the holiday party is completely voluntary, and that they are not being compensated for their attendance at the event. Employers should also consider that injuries or illness associated with contaminants found in food or drinks may create legal exposure if their food and beverage providers are not properly licensed – using a third-party provider who is licensed may reduce your risk of liability because these licensed providers are typically subject to inspections and protected by their own insurance coverage.

4. Prevent Wage and Hour Claims by Non-Exempt Employees. To avoid any confusion as to whether time spent at a company-sponsored holiday party is compensable time under federal and state wage and hour laws, employers should be sure that participation in the holiday party is completely voluntary, that the party is held outside working hours, and that employees are not performing any work during the party or are not under the impression that they are performing work functions at the party that could be considered compensable under applicable law.

If you have any questions about any of the information provided in this article or would like further advice on how to avoid liability at your company-sponsored holiday party, please do not hesitate to contact us.