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Do Employers Have a Duty to Throw a Good Holiday Party?

Every year we write an article on employer-hosted holiday parties and the pitfalls to avoid.  While we intend to review all of those potential pitfalls, employers should keep in mind that avoiding pitfalls is not their only concern.

Generally, under common law, employers have a duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in supervising their party once they decide to host one.  This means that the best-laid plans and preparation may not be enough.  Employers need to ensure they are acting reasonably in their overall supervision of the event.  Employers should have feet on the ground the day of the party, meaning key managers should keep a watchful eye on partygoers.  For example, you may decide to have a two-drink maximum for employees.  If you do, you still need to ensure that employees are not being served alcohol while visibly intoxicated, employees are not bringing in their own alcohol, and employees are not using more tickets than they are allotted, among other things.

In one case decided by the Indiana Supreme Court, the employer, a construction company, held a holiday party.  One partygoer drank three to four beers and then thirty minutes before he left, drank six to eight shots of eighty-proof whiskey while playing a drinking game.  When the employee left the party, he drove across a highway median and struck a car head-on causing serious injury.  The Court held that the employer breached its duty to exercise ordinary and reasonable care by allowing the employee to play a drinking game where he became drunk and then operated his vehicle.  The bottom line is that once the party begins, you must act reasonably including in your supervision of the event.

As promised, below is a list of suggestions to avoid common pitfalls:

  1. Planning: Create a plan for your party well in advance including potential issues that may arise. Remind employees that you expect them to act professionally and to follow all company policies including sexual harassment, discrimination, dress code, inter-office relationships, and professionalism.
  2. Invitees: Decide if it is beneficial to invite employees with guests who might tame (or inflame) the party. Ensure employees do not bring former employees.
  3. Theme: Your party should not be specific to a particular religion but related to the general time of year or season. Attendance should be voluntary.
  4. Feet on the Ground: Ensure your key managers understand that you expect them to circulate at the party to ensure employees are acting professionally. You might draft a plan of who is in charge of checking the foyer, parking lot, side rooms, bathrooms, and any other off-limits areas.  Impress upon these managers that you are relying on them to set the dynamics of the party.  Have you ruined the party for your key managers?  Maybe and maybe they need a party of their own!
  5. Alcohol: It is crucial to talk candidly with your key managers and decide if it makes sense to have alcohol and if it does, consider:
    1. Choosing a venue that is not near a bar.
    2. Greeting employees as they arrive to ensure only invited guests attend and that none have alcohol with them.
    3. Holding the party on a weekday or early in the day with a definite end time.
    4. Limiting alcohol by using tickets, serving only beer and wine, or shutting the bar an hour or more before the end of the party.
    5. Serving plenty of food and non-alcoholic beverages.
    6. Hiring professional bartenders. Make sure the bartender accepts liability for serving intoxicated guests.
    7. Having a taxi service (maybe at no charge) openly available in case it is needed.
  6. Workers’ Compensation Liability: Make attendance voluntary so if an employee is injured at the party, you can argue the injury was not work-related. BUT, if you succeed, you can be sued and workers’ compensation will not protect you.
  7. Check for Liability: Review your insurance (workers’ compensation and other policies) to determine your liability for employees and third parties and for alcohol exclusions.
  8. Post-Party Issues: Touch base with your key players after the party to see if anything occurred of which you should be aware and ask employees how they liked the party. This is a good way to ensure that no problems occurred and if they did, to handle those issues immediately.

For a more detailed list of pitfalls, see /blog/dont-let-the-karaoke-machine-set-the-tone-for-your-holiday-party/.

We wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday season.  We offer assistance to management on these and all types of employment-related issues.  If we can be of assistance in this area, please contact us at info@brodyandassociates.com or 203.965.0560.