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How to avoid liability when hosting a workplace holiday party

Throwing an annual holiday party can be a good way to boost employee morale and show appreciation for your staff's hard work. However, when poorly planned, it can also put your company at risk for liability.

In today's post, we examine three key areas that, when handled inappropriately, can turn a fun, work-sponsored event into a potential lawsuit.

Sexual harassment

The relaxed, social environment of an office party can make coworkers behave less professionally than they otherwise might. Therefore, in advance of the event, it's worthwhile to remind employees of the company code of conduct -- and that these expectations apply to work-sponsored events as well.

Certain variables can help limit the likelihood of employee misbehavior. For instance, throwing your holiday party during the day -- rather than at night -- and providing limited amounts of or no alcohol can help keep employee conduct professional. In addition, encouraging employees to invite their significant others to the holiday party can also help deter inappropriate behavior between colleagues.

It is the employer's responsibility to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment, including at employer-sponsored events, and to develop an accessible procedure for filing sexual harassment complaints. In the event of such a complaint arising out of behavior at a holiday party, the employer should quickly investigate and take appropriate disciplinary action, just the same as it would if the behavior took place during the regular work day.

Discrimination

In addition, an employer has an obligation to put on a holiday party where all feel welcome. Be aware of party-planning decisions that could put you at risk of religious- or disability-related discrimination:

  • Do not throw a holiday party associated with any particular religion or denomination (e.g., do not have someone dress up as Santa Claus).
  • Do not host the party in a religious venue.
  • Ensure that the party venue is accessible to guests with disabilities.

Tort liability

Offering (or sanctioning) alcohol at a holiday party not only increases your chances of rowdy party guests but can also make you potentially liable for employee misbehavior once the party is over. For example, in Purton v. Marriott International Inc., the California Court of Appeals found that if an employee gets drunk at an office holiday party and later gets behind the wheel, the employer can be held accountable for any harm the employee causes to others. The Court explicitly noted that the employer could have limited its risk "in numerous ways such as having a policy prohibiting smuggled alcohol, enforcing its drink ticket policy, serving drinks for only a limited time period and serving food.   Alternatively, it could have eliminated the risk by forbidding alcohol."

While you can't control the behavior of every member of your staff, following the above recommendations can increase your chances of appropriate office party behavior -- while simultaneously providing you added protection from liability.

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