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Four Tips for a Lawsuit-Free Holiday Party (Where No One Gets Fired)

Coworkers wearing festive antlers pose for a selfie at a work holiday party
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on December 21, 2021 8:16 AM

With the Delta and Omicron coronavirus variants on the rise, many companies are reconsidering having a holiday office party—from Wall Street to Big Law. On the other hand, it's been a challenging year for many people, and rewarding employees for sticking it out may be appealing for many businesses. In addition, with the Great Resignation still in full swing, having a positive work culture can be a good way of retaining talent.

So, how much fun can you have at an office holiday party? What can you do? The question isn't rhetorical. While office parties can be a way to relax, get to know each other better, and interact with coworkers outside of an office setting, they can also cause nightmares for human resources professionals and business leaders.

Sometimes, of course, the problem is a business leader. Every year brings new sexual harassment claims involving holiday parties. If you are an employee and this happened to you (or you dread office parties because of harassing behavior), you can report your concerns and experiences to HR. If they take no action, you can file a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and contact a lawyer experienced in sexual harassment claims to explore your options.

If you are a leader trying to plan for a safe but still fun holiday party, then read on.

Tip 1: Control Alcohol Consumption

As Homer Simpson once said, alcohol is "the cause of, and solution to, all of life's problems." Having alcohol at a holiday party can be an excellent way for employees to let loose a little and mingle. It can also lead to some of the worst behavior imaginable. Here are some ways to lower the risk of unlawful or unprofessional behavior occurring (not to mention lowering the business' liability risk):

  • Sober rides: Any holiday party involving alcohol should include an option for employees to get an alternative ride home at no cost to them. It's the right thing to do and removes the chance of an employee getting behind the wheel and seriously injuring themselves or others. If that does happen, the business could be liable for any resulting injuries.
  • Set an end time: They don't have to go home, but your employees should know when the official holiday party ends and any additional activities are on their own time.
  • Use drink tickets: Some may appreciate an open bar, but it can help set expectations to issue one or two drink tickets, so employees are not encouraged to drink irresponsibly. You can also set a time to stop serving drinks. If you're serving alcohol at the office, hire bartenders so that they can cut off someone who is inebriated.

Tip 2: Keep It Non-Denominational

Whatever your personal views about the War on Christmas, office parties are not the place to get involved in a religious or culture war debate. It is also against the law to discriminate based on religion. Whether your employees celebrate a winter religious festival or not, the holiday office party should be more about celebrating the end of the year.

Tip 3: Don't Make it Mandatory

It's pretty hard to force someone to have fun, and in any case, employees should have the option of attending a party. Many people are worried about COVID-19, and there may be other valid reasons why an employee would not be able to attend. To encourage attendance, you can have it during regular business hours. If you do decide to make it mandatory, do not serve alcohol. You must also pay every employee for their time in that case.

Tip 4: Remind Employees (and Especially Managers) They're Still Accountable

It's nice to get to know each other and have fun outside of work hours. But a company event is still a company event, and just because it's five o'clock (or five o'clock somewhere) doesn't mean the rules don't apply anymore. This is particularly true of managers, who should understand that they are accountable for their behavior. It doesn't necessarily lead to legal liability to have a "work hard, play hard" culture. Still, in that case, there need to be clear lines and expectations about appropriate work behavior.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

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