Office holiday party can be invitation to a lawsuit

You want to have a company holiday party because it shows your employees you appreciate the work they did all year. But how do you balance Santa with Scrooge? Thoughtful planning can help minimize any legal liability. Employment law and risk management attorney Bobbie Fox explains how company holiday parties are fraught with lawsuit risks.

7 Tips from a Lawyer for a Lawsuit-Free Holiday Party

By Bobbie Fox
Attorney, SCF Arizona

  1. The party is a voluntary social event.  Say this twice, and at least once in writing. Be careful not to blur the lines between work and social. Employees who are required to attend for “work” may be effectively working, requiring you to pay them overtime if they are non-exempt and creating potential liability under the employment laws and workers compensation.
  2. The party is off work premises. This helps with your assertion that this event is not work.
  3. Don’t serve alcohol. Maybe that isn’t realistic for your group. Well, being a lawyer, I have to try that one when giving party advice. If you do offer alcohol, limit consumption by giving drink tickets and stop serving before the party ends. Offer food and give out taxi vouchers. If you have a drunken guest, don’t restrain them (oops, that could be false imprisonment). Instead, tell them you will call police if they drive, and do so.
  4. Have a party monitor. I know you hate this idea, but the monitor can be on the lookout for intoxicated people and address concerns. Call them the host or hostess if that makes you feel better. Better yet, make Human Resources your party host. Everyone knows HR will turn them in for bad behavior in a heartbeat (and that’s a good thing).
  5. Insist on good behavior. Yes, an employer can really get sued for sexual harassment that occurs at an off-work employer sponsored event between two employees. Or between a manager and an employee. Or between an employee and a vendor. You get the picture.
  6. Call your workers comp insurance (keyword) company. Verify that your company has coverage for an off-work, off-premises social event for employees. If you don’t, consider adding it for the event.
  7. Did I mention that this is a voluntary social event? If you had to scroll to No.  1 to check, you can now see the value in mentioning this more than once. 

QUESTIONS:  Have you had legal trouble due to a holiday party for employees? Are you serving alcohol at your party this year?

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