Three Legal Issues To Avoid At The Company's Holiday Party

Posted on: 30 November 2015

Holiday office parties can be a lot of fun -- until somebody spikes the punch and somebody else has a few too many cups of it. If things get out of hand, your company could end up facing a lawsuit. Here are 3 things to look out for (and a few ways to prevent them):

1.) Sexual Harassment

A stolen kiss under the mistletoe never harmed anybody, right? Wrong. With the alcohol flowing and inhibitions lowered, someone could decide to plant an unwanted kiss on someone else. The next thing you know, your company is facing a sexual harassment lawsuit. To minimize the risk, be proactive:

  • Pass out a reminder of the company's sexual harassment policy in the week before the party and remind people that it applies to all employee events, including parties.

  • Invite spouses and significant others. The extra social pressure can encourage everyone to behave.

  • Have coordinated events. That means less time for somebody to get bored and start thinking up their own things to do.

2.) Work Injuries

What happens if a game of "Pin The Tail On The Reindeer" gets a little overly animated and somebody gets spun around too fast and falls? If he or she is injured, you could be facing a potential workers' compensation claim. While laws vary from state to state, there are things that you are generally more likely to be held liable if you're the one providing the alcohol and if you're obligating employees to be there. You can take steps to reduce liability:

  • Hold the event after regular business hours or on the weekend.

  • Hold the event at a restaurant or hotel, where there's a cash bar. You can provide the food, but let the employees buy their own drinks if they want them.

  • Make it clear that this is an optional event. Don't pressure anyone to attend or imply that it could help someone's career to be seen at the party.

3.) Drunk Driving

Could you possibly be held responsible if an employee has too many drinks at the party, decides to drive home, and gets into an accident on the way? Even if this clearly isn't a mandated company event, a 2013 lawsuit drastically expanded an employer's liability for drunken employees under the theory of respondeat superior. Many employers may choose not to allow alcohol at holiday parties at all, as a result. If you don't want to take that step, you can still do other things to reduce the chances of a problem:

  • Make it clear that the company will provide a ride home to any employee that needs one, no questions asked.

  • Serve a full dinner. People are less likely to consume too much alcohol on a full belly and alcohol has less impact on those who have eaten.

  • Tell the bar to serve only beer or wine, no hard liquor. Beer and wine are generally consumed more slowly, unlike shots of liquor, and are less potent.

It's always best to prevent a problem before it starts. If something happens, however, talk to an attorney who specializes in business law as soon as possible to get help with your problem.