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Employment Law Blog: Eggnog, Hangovers, & the Employee Christmas...I Mean Holiday Party - November 30, 2012

In the movie “Desk Set” starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy there is an iconic scene at the office Christmas party.  Ms. Hepburn works for a broadcasting company and it is clear that “everything goes” on Christmas as long as the doors stay open.  There is free-flowing champagne, crazy Christmas carols and snuggling in the boss’ office chair.  This scene captures every cliché that strikes terror into the hearts of human resources and risk managers.  But, like the Grinch, you can’t stop Christmas from coming, it’s here. There are several areas where you might want to think about the risk your holiday festivities could cause.  

  1. Alcohol.  Most offices, unless they are “Mad Men” retro, aren’t having a Christmas party, they are having a holiday party.  But like Mad Men, many companies tend to go heavy on the alcohol.  What is a holiday without champagne or other alcoholic treats you may ask?  One with a lot less liability risk.  The problem with serving alcohol to your employees is fairly obvious.  Alcohol and work do not necessarily mix. Further, you probably have a policy about not drinking at work or while performing work duties.  Any holiday festivities should be timed so that they are not interrupting the work day, i.e. no wine tasting lunches, hopefully minimizing the impact upon employees who fill safety sensitive functions.  If you, as the employer, are serving alcohol, you need to think carefully about the added risk this creates for you under applicable dram shop laws.  If an employee becomes drunk and leaves your office and injures others or even individually gets injured in a car accident, that liability risk can come back to you for having served the alcohol.  One way to help mitigate this risk would be to hire a licensed company which would then assume the dram shop liability for serving alcohol to the employees. There are certainly additional costs to hiring a company to serve alcohol as opposed to making a bunch of six packs available on the conference room table. The liability and insurance issues may make that cost worthwhile. Serving beer or wine rather than cocktails may also mitigate risk, although you can get drunk on beer just like you can on anything else.  Make sure you provide the opportunity for employees to catch a ride home via taxi or a van service rather than simply allowing them to hop in their cars and menace the local deer and pedestrian population. The best choice is simply not to serve alcohol.  

  2. Sexual Harassment.  Frequently the holiday party involves alcohol which lowers inhibitions and seems to breed bad jokes and other inappropriate behavior.  It could also be that those who are prone to inappropriate activities or unprofessional actions use the holiday as a cover for hugs, pats and kisses.  Mistletoe and the behavior it might inspire in the office are both poisonous. You need to be clear with employees that you expect the professionalism requirements you have for everyday work to apply at the holiday party.  Employees who behave inappropriately will be disciplined for that behavior.  Holiday parties with your co-workers aren’t “out-of-work” behavior; people still need to be held to standards regarding how they treat their co-employees. Further, employees participate in parties and other activities at their own risk when it comes to their friends’ Facebook and social media accounts. You cannot police every cell phone or picture that might be taken at a holiday party although you can reiterate the requirements of your individual company’s social media policy to attendees.  

  3. Party Volunteers.  It is not really a party if you are forced to go. You should not make holiday parties a requirement to show team work, be part of the group, or provide special benefits for those who are planning or attending the party. If you normally hand out some kind of holiday bonus or gift at the party make sure that employees who choose not to attend can pick that gift or bonus up at an alternate time.  Also see our blog post on the taxability of year-end gifts.  Employees might be introverts or they might choose not to attend a holiday party due to religious reasons. Or, maybe they simply do not like their co-workers that well. Under no circumstances should a holiday party be a required part of your job functions.

  4. Special Activities.  If you are engaging in special activities with your employees such as snowboarding, snowball fights or riding a mechanical bull at the Christmas party, you need to make sure that you have appropriate waivers for employee activities in place to warn employees of the dangers of the activity and the potential for injury.  Waiver requirements in Iowa are very specific so waivers should be coordinated with your legal counsel.  As Ralphie’s mom, in “A Christmas Story” states, “You’ll shoot your eye out” and if the employee does so, you as the employer do not want to be held liable.