The time has come for companies to begin planning their 2019 holiday parties. While these events are a great way to show appreciation for employees and build morale, they can present certain risks for employers. Being mindful of the following issues can help employers avoid complaints, or worse, lawsuits, associated with holiday parties.
While alcohol is common, and often expected, at holiday parties, employers can and should be mindful of potential problems which could follow, including employees driving after drinking at the party. If an employee drives drunk and injures another person while driving home from the party, a lawsuit could follow in which the employer could potentially be exposed to liability. The best way to avoid alcohol-related problems at a holiday party is to consider some or all of the following suggestions:
• Use drink tickets rather than an open bar to limit consumption;
• Offer taxi or Uber credits to employees;
• Instruct bartenders not to overserve and to monitor employees’ alcohol consumption;
• Close the bar well before the party comes to an end; and/or
• Before the party, remind employees in writing that, although alcohol will be served, employees are still expected to behave professionally and that anyone who plans to drink must secure a ride home.
In addition, employers should consider designating one or more managers to be on the lookout for anyone who appears to be impaired so that any problems can be addressed early on.
Harassment claims often go hand in hand with alcohol consumption. While employers certainly do not need to hand out copies of their harassment policies at the entrance, they should be conducting harassment trainings with their employees and reminding employees of harassment policies on an annual basis, if not more often. Doing so will place the issue in employees’ minds and potentially help support a legal defense to any harassment claim down the road if an incident does occur.
In general, employers should avoid making holiday parties about one particular holiday or another. Instead, the celebration should be inclusive of all employees’ beliefs and cultures. A holiday party with overt religious references may cause an employee who believes that he or she has been the subject of religious discrimination with one more reason to voice a complaint or assert a claim. The same applies to other forms of holiday celebration (e.g. “secret Santa” gift exchanges which can make non-Christians feel excluded). While an employer’s reference to Christmas, Hanukkah or any other seasonal religious holiday is unlikely to be the reason an employer has legal exposure, it certainly won’t help when defending against a claim based upon religious discrimination or harassment.
Mandatory Attendance and Wage and Hour Issues
Every company wants its holiday party to be well attended. Some go so far as to make attendance mandatory. However, if an employer tells nonexempt employees that attendance at the party is required, the employer may be opening itself up to a host of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and state law claims. If attendance at a holiday party truly is mandatory, it is likely employees will have to be paid for the time they spend there. Additional relevant factors include whether the party takes place during working hours and on or off the company’s premises. If an employer does not plan to pay non-exempt employees for attendance at its holiday party, the employer should make clear, in writing, that attendance is optional (and ideally, that the party will take place outside of working hours and away from the employer’s office).
These are just a few of the commonsense tips employers should have in mind when preparing for and hosting holiday parties. Although not all employers (and certainly not all employees) will necessarily embrace these tips, they can help holiday parties serve as a fun-filled event rather than a source of liability and legal headaches.