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Don’t Let the Karaoke Machine Set the Tone for Your Holiday Party

The end of the year is a great time to show your employees how much you appreciate their hard work.  However, where employees are consuming alcohol, relaxing, and interacting with each other outside their normal workplace environment, inappropriate behavior can occur.  Each year, employers are found liable for employee misbehavior that happens at these parties.  Without being Scrooge, you need to prepare.

In a case decided earlier this year, Purton v. Marriott International, Inc., a California appellate court held the Marriott (employer) could be liable for a death caused when an employee became intoxicated after consuming alcohol at an employer-hosted holiday party and while driving home, struck another car, killing the driver.  While the employer limited alcohol at the party by distributing only two drink tickets to partygoers and serving beer and wine (not liquor), the court found the employer did not do enough to ensure these limitations were followed.  The intoxicated employee drank before arriving at the party, brought a flask of whiskey into the party, and had a manager refill his flask with whiskey while there.  The court stated the Marriott could have lessened the risk of harm at the party by having a policy prohibiting smuggled alcohol, enforcing its drink ticket policy, serving drinks for only a limited time period and serving food, or eliminated the risk by forbidding alcohol.

This case is just one example of how costly and sometimes deadly the consequences are that arise from inappropriate behavior at company holiday parties.  The key to minimizing these risks is careful planning and open communication among management.  Below are some suggestions you and your key players should consider, based on the demographics of your particular workplace, as you plan your holiday party:

  1. Create a Plan: Plan out your party well in advance with your key players, discussing the suggestions below and any other problems you anticipate could arise at the party.
  2. Circulate a Memo:  Remind employees either in writing or in-person that professional behavior is expected at the party.  You might consider pointing out company policies that must be followed at the party including sexual harassment, dress code, discrimination, inter-office relationships, and professionalism.  Setting a professional tone through an internal memo well before the first partygoer arrives will help ensure employees and guests understand your expectations.  At least send this memo to your management team.
  3. Decide If Alcohol is Worth Having: Depending on your workforce, it may or may not make sense to serve alcohol at the party.  If you decide to serve alcohol, consider the following:
    • Choose a venue not adjacent to bars or clubs where employees can continue the party after the event.
    • Greet employees as they arrive to ensure partygoers are not intoxicated or bringing in alcohol.  This will also ensure that only employees and their guests participate, not terminated employees or other uninvited individuals.
    • Hold the party on a weekday and/or early in the day.  You might consider a brunch or lunch party.  If the party is an afternoon or evening party, consider a definite end time.
    • Limit alcohol by using tickets or serving only beer and wine.
    • Serve plenty of food and non-alcoholic beverages, and make sure the venue draws attention to the food and not to the bar.
    • Hire professional bartenders who understand and will enforce any limiting rules you have set (tickets or type of alcohol), will require identification from partygoers, and will refrain from serving intoxicated guests.  Make sure the bartender accepts liability for serving intoxicated guests.
    • Have a taxi service openly available in case it is needed.
    • Ask key players to circulate throughout the night and keep tabs on alcohol consumption and behavior.
    • Review your insurance policy to see if there are any alcohol exclusions.
    • Close the bar an hour or more before the end of the event.
  4. Enlist the Help of Key Players:  Speak with your key players about professionalism.  Discuss what you expect of them at the party.  You may want them (or someone else) to circulate throughout the evening and speak to all of the guests, as well as periodically check the parking lots, side rooms, and bathrooms.  Make sure they understand they have the power to influence the dynamics of the party and that you are relying on them to maintain a fun but professional atmosphere.
  5. Pay Attention to Workers’ Compensation Liability:  Make attendance voluntary.  If an employee is injured at the party and files a workers’ compensation claim, it is easier for an employer to say the injury was not work-related where attendance was voluntary.  This could help or hurt you.  Better to have a worker’s compensation claim than to have the company sued in court.  Discuss this with counsel.
  6. Check for Liability:  Review your insurance to determine your liability for employees and third parties.
  7. Respect Religious Views:  Make sure the party is a holiday, seasonal, or year-end party, and that attendance is voluntary.  It should not be associated with a particular religion.  This will minimize the risk of religious discrimination claims.
  8. Decide on a Guest List: Consider inviting spouses, families, and guests.  This may tame the party and prevent inappropriate behavior.  Make sure employees are not bringing terminated employees who may cause trouble.  If clients and/or vendors attend, you may want to rethink whom else you would like at the party.
  9. Pay Attention to Post Party Concerns: In the days after the holiday party, if you learn that some form of harassment occurred, seek legal counsel immediately.

We wish everyone a happy 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.