The end of the year brings various obligations for employers, along with the opportunity to spread holiday cheer to employees, whether it’s through end-of-year bonuses, time off from work, or company-hosted holiday parties. Unfortunately, examples of litigation arising out of holiday parties are not hard to find. Company-sponsored parties frequently lead to legal claims because of the festive atmosphere that encourages employees to eat, drink, and be too merry. Here are a few tips and suggestions to ensure your business and its employees can ring in the New Year on a high note.
Be open to all viewpoints
When you’re planning and inviting employees to your holiday party, it’s a good idea to call it just that, a holiday party, rather than tying the event to a particular holiday, such as Christmas or Hanukkah. That way, you ensure that employees of all religions and backgrounds feel equally encouraged to participate in the out-of-office event. Even if supervisors are aware that a particular employee’s beliefs prevent him from celebrating, everyone should feel welcome to attend.
Don’t make attendance mandatory
With that said, no one should be required to attend. If attendance is mandatory, then the party may be considered work time for which you have to pay nonexempt employees. Also, employees who don’t celebrate holidays shouldn’t be required to attend. Numerous cases litigated against employers include allegations that an employee was required to participate in a holiday event that was contrary to her religious beliefs. So encourage employees to come, but don’t require them to.
Restrict excess consumption of alcohol
Many problems that arise at outside-the-office events, whether they involve harassment or injuries, stem from overindulgence in alcohol. A proactive employer should think about how to limit employees’ excessive drinking, both to protect them and to protect itself from potential liability.
For catered events or parties held at event centers, it can be a good idea to have a cash bar rather than an open bar. Another way to try to limit excess alcohol consumption is to ask bartenders to be aware of who they are serving and decline to serve anyone who appears inebriated.
Also, serve appetizers, dinner, and dessert if you intend to have alcohol available throughout the evening. You may want to make taxis or shuttles available for employees who need assistance getting home at the end of the evening. A party held over an extended lunch hour can discourage excessive drinking and may be appreciated by employees who have multiple family, church, or other evening events to attend during the holiday season.
Review policies with employees beforehand
Your antiharassment, dress code, and other employee conduct policies apply to out-of-office holiday events. It’s a good idea to review the rules with employees a couple of weeks before an event by sending an e- mail or memorandum summarizing the relevant policies.
To prevent employees from showing up in inappropriate attire, hold the party right after business hours. That may encourage them to come in their ordinary work attire, which also provides a reminder that their conduct at the party reflects on their professional lives.
Check your insurance coverage
A good thing to do anytime of the year, but particularly when you’re planning a large-scale event for employees, is to check with your insurer about the scope of your coverage. Does your policy contain exclusions for off-site events or attendance-optional parties held after hours? Does serving alcohol trigger any exclusions? It’s always best to be prepared.
Ask team leaders to set a good example
While you surely want everyone to spread the holiday cheer, consider asking your team leaders or supervisors to keep any eye on their employees at the party. If your business’s leaders set a good example at the party, other employees are likely to act professionally and still have fun.
And, of course, encourage everyone to have a good time. End-of-the-year celebrations can be a great way to encourage team building and boost morale for a good start to the new year.
Bonnie M. Boryca is an attorney with Erickson | Sederstrom, P.C., practicing in the firm’s Omaha, Nebraska, office and a contributing editor of Nebraska Employment Law Letter. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.