Liability doesn't take a holiday

Responsible steps for company festivities

The company holiday party—or any company-sponsored social event—can become a company nightmare unless properly planned. It's not just alcohol and mistletoe that can get a business in trouble. The sober truth is that a well-meaning company can get into legal difficulties beyond loose behavior by a tipsy employee. Here are some guidelines that will help avoid falling into legal liability traps that may not be obvious to most employers:

  • IS IT A PARTY, OR AN EXTENSION OF THE WORK DAY AND SUBJECT TO WAGE AND HOUR LAWS?

    Rule Number One should be that unless non-exempt employees are being paid for their time, attendance should be totally voluntary and the party should be held after the work day. No business should be conducted and the attendees should not be expected to perform any duties related to the party.

    "Business" would include any speeches, year-end bonuses or awards for performance. Inviting spouses and significant others would not only help avoid any business but also help keep employees on their best behavior and possibly avoid sexual harassment.

  • WHAT KIND OF HOLIDAY PARTY IS IT?

    Keep it a winter holiday party to avoid religious discrimination. Even if almost all employees might celebrate Christmas, and some of them might be offended by calling it a "holiday" party, religious discrimination lawsuits are to be avoided.

  • HOW CAN YOU LIMIT DRINKING?

    If alcohol is being served, one way to keep imbibing in check is to provide activities other than drinking, such as dancing, charades, trivia and numerous other party games. Serving ample food and soft drinks helps.

    Consider drink tickets, but do set the hours for the party and close the bar promptly. Offer transportation home if necessary.

  • DOES IS MATTER WHERE THE PARTY IS HELD?

    An off-site venue is best for several reasons, mainly because the professional wait staff and bartenders employed by a caterer, restaurant or party center are likely to be covered by insurance. They are also likely to understand if they are instructed to cut off attendees who appear to have had too much to drink. If the party is on-site, check the caterer's liability insurance, and as mentioned above, be especially careful that business is not conducted.

    And, it should go without saying that wherever the party is held, keep the mistletoe away.

—Jim Juliano
juliano@nicola.com