By Christine Malafi

It’s that time of the year again! Many employers are hosting holiday parties, where employees, and sometimes clients and customers as well, get a chance to relax, socialize, and take a break from the work to celebrate the holiday season. Raising employee morale during the holiday season is a good way to say thank you for their work all year, but despite the fun of a party, there are potential legal issues which could quickly make you forget the fun. To avoid problems from arising, it is advisable to act before the party to minimize potential headaches after the party.

Serving alcohol is always a risk–the potential for accidents and injuries, as well as inappropriate behavior, and lawsuits. Risk can be reduced by advanced planning. While liability generally does not attach to “social hosts” for accidents or injuries suffered off-premises by third parties as a result of alcohol served by the host, at least in New York, if an employee leaves a holiday party, and travels directly to another state, New York law may not prevent liability. Additionally, no one under the age of 21 years may be served alcohol at a holiday party, or liability will result if someone is injured by that underage holiday party drinker. The safest way to prevent potential liability relative to physical injuries involving alcohol use at a holiday party is to hire bartenders to serve the alcohol and make sure alcohol is not served to underage party guests.

Another risk associated with alcohol consumption is the level of “celebration.” As an employer, you do not want managers and/or supervisors acting inappropriately or provocatively, or flirting, with your staff. Some people tend to exude an excessive amount of cheer during the holiday season. The same workplace standards of a non-hostile work environment and non-harassing conduct apply to and should be enforced at holiday parties.

If the party will have music, employers should check the song list, and gift-giving should have limits. Joking and teasing, while permissible, should be without the bounds of a work setting. You don’t want to start the New Year with a humiliated employee commencing a hostile work environment or discrimination lawsuit.

Additionally, it is probable that a court will find that employees’ attendance at a holiday party relates to their employment, even if attendance is voluntary, potentially triggering workers’ compensation benefits for injuries sustained during the party (and potentially afterwards). Employers must take reasonable steps to protect their employees (and guests) from injury, whether at the workplace or an off-site location where the holiday party is held.

Finally, to avoid potential wage claims, if attendance at the party is required, the party should be held during normal work hours.

To help set your mind at ease before your holiday party, consider doing the following:

  • Have transportation to and from the party available;
  • Hire a professional bartender or caterer with sufficient liability insurance;
  • Provide non-alcoholic drinks;
  • Serve food, not only snacks;
  • Have management/supervisors at the party on the lookout for excessive drinking and/or inappropriate behavior;
  • Have a holiday lunch instead of a dinner;
  • Invite employees’ family members to participate in the party;
  • Make sure employees know that they do not have to attend the party if they chose not to; and
  • Do not focus on one religion or holiday to the exclusion of any employee’s beliefs or observances.

A little advance planning can go a long way to help the success of your holiday party!

If you have any questions about your holiday party, please feel free to contact us.

Happy Holidays!