As 2013 comes to an end, we have been considering a number of workplace issues that employers might face at the end of the year and the beginning of the holiday season. In parts one, two, and three of this blog series, we covered employers’ chief concerns when hiring a seasonal workforce, employers’ health care obligations towards seasonal workers, and OSHA’s fact sheet on how retailers can manage holiday shopping crowds. Part four offers employers 10 tips on planning and conducting holiday parties and 10 tips on serving alcohol at holiday gatherings.
As the holiday season approaches, workplaces are gearing up for annual office festivities. Employers hope these parties will provide their team members with appreciation, fun, and relaxation. Unfortunately, as we covered in our post last year, holiday parties gone awry lead to lawsuits every holiday season: an employee gets in an accident driving home from the party after drinking, a manager touches a subordinate inappropriately, or an employee feels left out or forced to participate.
Harassment cases reported in the past year have included a variety of cautionary tales. In one, a school superintendent’s discharge was upheld when he lost his job after making inappropriate comments at a private holiday party. The party was attended by school board members who heard him comment that “this meeting was as much fun as . . . a prom queen’s [anatomy] on prom night.” In another, a harassment claim based on sexually-charged employer-hosted parties was allowed to proceed. In a third, a retaliation claim was allowed to proceed against an employer that fired an employee after he reported observing racial segregation at the office’s holiday party. And in a fourth, harassment and retaliation claims related to sexual comments made by a supervisor’s husband were allowed to proceed.
Alcohol at holiday parties consistently generates litigation. This year an employer lost a motion for summary judgment in a case where its employee was involved in a car accident after attending a holiday party where his manager served him drinks. The party planners had intended for only beer and wine to be served, and they had implemented a drink ticket system to limit consumption. But the manager did not follow those guidelines. She served the employee whiskey, and he caused a fatal accident after leaving the party. In another case, a Texas man ended up with a five-year community supervision criminal sentence when he became so drunkenly belligerent at a party that the police had to be called.
The types of cases described above are largely avoidable—and they are worth avoiding. They cause distraction and lost productivity in the workplace, and they certainly put a damper on office morale. And even when the employer prevails in litigation, it incurs unwanted attorneys’ fees. By following a handful of common sense rules, employers can avoid having a December holiday party that leads to legal drama in January.
Here are our top 10 tips for a holiday party the lawyers will never hear about.
- Make it a holiday party, not a Christmas party. With a diverse workforce, it’s important to include employees of all faiths.
- Keep decorations secular.
- Don’t decorate with mistletoe. If any sexual harassment shenanigans occur at the party, investigate them promptly and thoroughly.
- Don’t force employees to attend a holiday party. Not everyone celebrates the holidays, and some of your employees may want to opt out.
- Inform your employees ahead of time that what happens at the holiday party does not “stay” at the holiday party. Normal workplace rules about harassment and professionalism apply.
- Ensure that the party location is accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) standards.
- Don’t leave out your unmarried employees. If you want to throw a bigger party, invite “employee and guest” rather than “employee and spouse.”
- If you’re serving alcohol, make sure your invitations specify that it’s an adults-only event.
- Double check that your harassment policies and training are up-to-date before the party.
- Have fun. Throwing a holiday party is a lovely way to acknowledge your team’s efforts and to boost morale.
And because alcohol is the heart of so many holiday missteps, it gets its own top 10 tips.
- Consider foregoing alcohol altogether, but if you are going to serve it . . . .
- Be sure to serve food too. Do not let your employees drink on an empty stomach.
- Consider a daytime or weeknight event to curtail overconsumption.
- Use a ticket system or cash bar instead of an open bar.
- Stick to beer and wine instead of hard liquor.
- If heavy drinking is a possibility, provide taxis or shuttles for your guests.
- Never serve alcohol to employees who are underage.
- Consider hosting the party off company premises and retaining professional bartenders. Do not let managers serve drinks.
- Invite guests. Employees are more likely to behave in front of their partners and dates.
- Instruct managers and supervisors that “after parties” aren’t for them. Supervisors and managers should be “on duty” during the party—intoxication is not permitted.
We wish you well this holiday season.
Part five of our holiday series, “Avoiding Mistletoe Mishaps, Part V: Are Holiday Gifts, Prizes, Or Parties Taxable Wages?” considers the tax implications of holiday gifting.
Brian L. McDermott is a shareholder in the Indianapolis office of Ogletree Deakins.
Amanda C. Couture is an associate in the Indianapolis office of Ogletree Deakins.