Where to Hang the Mistletoe? Avoiding Holiday Party Pitfalls

By T. Mickell Jimenez, Co-Chair Labor & Employment

It’s that time of year, the tree is decorated, the menorah is lit, and the punch bowl is brimming with holiday cheer. . . . everyone is happy and relaxed at the company party, except you, officer of all things people. The holidays are a great time to come together and celebrate a year of hard work, team building, and company accomplishments. Here are a few tips to navigate the holidays and avoid common workplace holiday party pitfalls.

 

Be Thoughtful About Alcohol Consumption

  • Control alcohol consumption. Open bars can lead to intoxicated employees and poor decision making; consider appropriate ways to limit alcohol consumption at the holiday party. Employers can be held responsible for the acts of employees undertaken in the course of their employment, even at the holiday party.
    • Use drink tickets
    • Specify a certain time for alcohol service 
    • Offer non-alcoholic beverages
  • Use professionals. Consider using professional bar tenders and wait staff authorizing them with the authority to refuse alcohol to anyone who is visibly intoxicated. Let the bad news come from someone outside of the company who is trained in the subtle art of delivering the news. Employees should never be allowed to stand-in as bartenders or wait staff, or otherwise serve alcohol at the party.
  • Pay to play. Consider providing non-employee designated drivers, paid Uber and cab fares, or rent a fun-bus to and from the venue.
  • Get coverage. Confirm that you or your venue vendor carries sufficient liability insurance to cover the event, the venue, and the service and consumption of alcohol.
  • Don’t Drink and Drive. Consider offering Company sponsored Uber, Lyft, or other shuttle services to get employees home safely.

 

Prevent Sexual Harassment

  • The “Weinstein” effect. Empower your employees through conversation. Start the discussion early about boundaries and appropriate conduct and create an atmosphere where employees are encouraged to speak up and stand up for each other if necessary.
  • Communicate expectations at employer-sponsored social functions. Employers may want to amend their harassment policies to specifically address employer-sponsored social events. Employers should remind employees that risqué or adult-themed gifts should not be exchanged with co-workers. Keep holiday customs appropriate to the workplace. In planning an employer-sponsored holiday party, employers should avoid including customs that have the potential to create romantic or sexually-charged situations. Rethink hanging that mistletoe.
  • Consider Including Family and Guests. While the addition of guests may increase the cost of a holiday event, employees may be less likely to engage in offensive behavior when accompanied by their significant others or surrounded by unfamiliar faces.

 

Minimize the Risk of Workers’ Compensation Liability

  • No work allowed! This is a holiday party, let employees know there is no business purpose for the event and attendance is voluntary.
  • Make it a destination. Consider hosting the event off company premises.
  • Gold star. Choose your venue wisely. Make sure the venue operator is properly licensed and insured, injuries associated with contaminants in food or drink may create legal exposure for employers if their providers are not properly licensed.

 

Prevent Wage and Hour Claims by Nonexempt Employees 

  • Use this time to make personal connections.
  • Inform employees that attendance at the party is voluntary.
  • Hold the party outside normal business hours.
  • Refrain from engaging in any business during the event, including:
    • speeches about business matters; and
    • distributing bonuses or performance awards.
  • Avoid asking employees to perform any specific functions at the party for the benefit of the employer.

 

For assistance navigating your company holiday party, call the Labor & Employment team at Clyde Snow & Sessions. This post is not intended to provide legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship. Ms. Jimenez is a shareholder and director of the firm and co-Chair of Clyde Snow’s Labor & Employment section. She has over 18 years of corporate guidance and counseling experience and litigating management sided employment related issues.