As the holiday season begins, many companies are gearing up to celebrate the year’s achievements with a festive workplace holiday party. While these events provide an excellent opportunity for team bonding and camaraderie, HR professionals must approach the planning and execution of such gatherings with a keen awareness of legal considerations and potential liabilities. Several factors should be considered to ensure a successful and legally compliant workplace holiday party.

Alcohol Consumption:
One of the key considerations when hosting a workplace holiday party is the presence of alcoholic beverages. While offering a selection of libations can contribute to a festive atmosphere, it is imperative to establish clear guidelines and policies regarding alcohol consumption. HR professionals should consider the following:

  1. Establish a Written Alcohol Policy: Clearly outline your company’s expectations regarding responsible alcohol consumption. Ensure that employees are aware of the policy well in advance of the event.
  2. Train Managers: Anyone in a supervisory role at the company should be trained on the risks of alcohol use with subordinates, as many think the rules don’t apply when they are off-duty. This can pose an unintended legal risk to the company for any off-duty activity that may cross a line, as it often does when substances of any nature are involved.
  3. Designate a Responsible Party: Designate someone to monitor alcohol consumption and intervene if necessary. This individual should be well-versed in the company’s alcohol policy and prepared to handle any situations that may arise.
  4. Provide Alternative Transportation Options: Encourage responsible drinking by arranging alternative transportation options, such as designated drivers or rideshare services. Reinforce the importance not to drink and drive.
  5. Limit Alcohol Availability: Consider limiting the duration of the open bar or the types of alcoholic beverages served. This can help prevent excessive drinking and mitigate potential liabilities.

Liabilities and Legal Concerns:
In the spirit of ensuring a safe and enjoyable holiday party, it’s crucial to be aware of potential liabilities and legal concerns associated with these events:

  1. Employer Liability: Even during company-sponsored events, employers are responsible for the conduct of their employees and may be subject to liability. Implementing and enforcing clear policies and practices during the event can mitigate potential legal risks. To avoid liability for serving alcohol, do not continue to serve an obviously inebriated employee or guest, do not serve minors, and do not charge for the beverages. Consider contracting with a venue for the event or, at least, bartenders who are separately insured and whose contract provides they assume liability for any incidents arising from over-imbibing.
  2. Harassment and Discrimination: Remind employees that workplace policies regarding harassment and discrimination extend to company events. Encourage a respectful and inclusive environment to avoid potential legal ramifications.
  3. Accessibility Considerations: Ensure that the chosen venue is accessible to all employees, taking into account any mobility or disability-related concerns. Failure to provide reasonable accommodations may result in legal challenges.
  4. Privacy Issues: Respect employees’ privacy by refraining from activities that could compromise personal information. Be cautious with event photography and other potential privacy infringements. Employers who want to use event photos of their employees should have them sign a consent authorizing the use of the images.
  5. Diversity and Inclusion: Remember, not everyone celebrates Christmas. Be mindful of the different religious practices throughout the holiday season, and refrain from focusing on one practice to the exclusion of others. A Christmas tree is a standard office decoration but falls short of this premise.

HR professionals are instrumental in guaranteeing that workplace holiday parties are both enjoyable and legally compliant. By proactively addressing alcohol consumption, liabilities, and legal concerns, employers can create an environment where employees can celebrate the season responsibly. Clear communication of policies, a focus on inclusivity and thoughtful planning will contribute to a successful and memorable holiday gathering.

Remember, these are general guidelines, and it’s crucial to consult with your legal counsel to tailor your workplace policies to fit your specific company. If you have questions about your workplace policies or other employment law matters, please get in touch with Chris or a member of the HSB Employment Law practice team.