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So you want to host a holiday office party?
Before you order the egg nog and string up the lights, it’s essential to step back and think about the potential professional and legal consequences of hosting a holiday work party.
We certainly don’t want to be a Grinch, so let us guide you through the legal issues that accompany holiday parties, so you know how to avoid them. Because the last thing you want is for your elegant holiday soiree to turn into a… legal nightmare.
There is a reoccurring theme in this article that can be used as a general rule of thumb:
If you are hosting a holiday office party, keep your employees safe and don’t pressure anyone to do things they aren’t comfortable with, whether that be drinking, worshipping, working off the clock, etc...
It is also vital, as the leader of the business, that you set a good example. That advice pertains to every legal issue on this list.
Sit back and learn about the four legal issues that every employer should know about office holiday parties.
The first legal issue to consider with your office holiday party is serving alcohol. Your team will likely want some sort of alcohol service at your office holiday party. But you need to strike a balance between making your team happy and avoiding any legal complications.
So how can you legally protect yourself while serving alcohol at an office holiday party?
Well, the first thing you need to know is that in many states, employers can be held liable for the actions of their employees. In other words, if an employee gets drunk at your holiday office party, then you could be held responsible for anything that they do after that.
There have been many cases where employees get in drunk driving accidents after office holiday parties, and then the employer is held liable. So how do you avoid that?
One thing you can do to insulate yourself from claims is to make sure that your employees get home safely. One way to do that is to pay for their rides home through a ridesharing or taxi service.
A word to the wise - just getting them home safely isn’t always enough. There was a case in California where an employee arrived home safely after an office holiday party, and then left the house and got in a drunk driving accident, and the employer was still held liable.
That brings us to the main point of this section: As an employer, you need to take steps to ensure that your employees just don’t get too drunk.
You can do that by limiting the amount of alcohol that you serve. You could hire a bartender who will make sure the guests aren’t overserved. You could offer drink vouchers to monitor consumption. Or maybe, you could just skip the hard alcohol and only serve beer and wine.
Another critical component of serving alcohol at an office event is to make sure that alcohol consumption isn’t mandatory.
And when we say “mandatory,” that includes “expected.” So, in other words, you don’t want to create an environment where drinking is heavily expected. You want to make it incidental to the festivities.
It is an unfortunate truth that alcohol consumption can increase the risk of sexual harassment. As an employer, it is your responsibility to protect your employees.
First, make sure that your company has a sexual harassment policy. No matter the size of your business, make sure you have a policy in place and that your employees have read and understand the policy. You may even want to consider redistributing your sexual harassment policy before hosting a work function.
When it comes to sexual harassment, one major issue that you want to avoid is any sort of relationship that involves superiors and the people they supervise, both directly or indirectly. Those relationships can be inherently coercive, and you want to avoid that. Not only does this help protect your company, more importantly, it helps protect your employees.
Our last piece of advice on sexual harassment is: Don’t hang mistletoe. Just don’t do it.
The third legal issue to think about is religion. The best practice is to call your secular office holiday party a “holiday” party rather than a “Christmas” party.
The point here is you want to make that everyone feels included. There is no reason to exclude someone from the festivities, or make them feel excluded, just because they don’t practice the same religion as you!
This doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t hang up “Christmas” themed decorations, but be conscious of other people’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
This also doesn’t mean you can’t play Christmas music, but you probably want to avoid making the party seem like a midnight mass on December 24th. That is not legal advice, but party advice in general.
The fourth issue to think about with your office holiday party is not making it mandatory.
First of all, making your party option will help prevent your liability in some circumstances if your employee goes off and does something negligent.
Secondly, if you have a mandatory office event, your non-exempt employees who are paid hourly should be paid for that time. If you make it a compulsory holiday party and you don’t pay your non-exempt employee, they can make a wage claim against you for that time.
But if it’s not mandatory and it’s purely social, and people will not be retaliated against if they don’t go, then your employees will have less legal standing to make any wage claims.
To wrap it all up, those are some ways to avoid legal liability stemming from your office holiday party. Remember, it’s not just about preventing lawsuits, it’s about being fair to people, making sure that they feel respected, and making sure that everyone stays safe this holiday season.
Now, let’s close it out with a list of things to avoid at your office holiday party:
Sitting on Santa’s lap
Full-scale Nativity scene reenactments
All you can eat seafood buffets…
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