It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Many employers host some form of a holiday party, be it a lunch, a cocktail hour, or a big soiree offsite. A holiday celebration is a great way to thank your employees with an opportunity to relax, socialize, and take a break from their work while enjoying some holiday spirit. But despite the fun of a party, potential legal issues could quickly make you lose your holiday cheer. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, and the legislation passed by New York in response, these concerns are more important than ever. To prevent problems from arising, take the opportunity to act now to minimize potential headaches after the party. Below are the top risks and how to handle them.

Alcohol concerns: Alcohol is always a risk – there is potential for accidents and injuries, as well as inappropriate behavior and lawsuits. Risk can be reduced by advance planning. Note that “social hosts” are generally not liable for accidents or injuries suffered off-premises by third parties as a result of alcohol served by the host. (However, New York law states that if an employee leaves a holiday party and travels directly to another state, the host may be held liable.) Further, no one under the age of 21 may be served alcohol at a holiday party. Liability will result if someone is injured by that underage holiday party drinker, or if a member of law enforcement discovers that an underage person was served alcohol. Your best bet? 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.” Some people exude an excessive – and inappropriate – amount of cheer during the holiday season. The same workplace standards of a non-hostile work environment and non-harassing conduct apply and should be enforced at holiday parties.

Attendance issues: Even if attendance is voluntary, employees’ attendance at a holiday party would likely be viewed by a court as related to their employment, potentially triggering workers’ compensation benefits for injuries sustained during the party (and potentially afterward). 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. Avoid potential wage claims by hosting the party during normal work hours if attendance at the party is required.

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

  • Have transportation to and from the party available and prevent intoxicated driving;
  • Hire a professional bartender and/or caterer with sufficient liability insurance;
  • Provide non-alcoholic drinks;
  • Serve a meal, not just appetizers and snacks;
  • Have management/supervisors at the party on the lookout for excessive drinking and/or inappropriate behavior;
  • Consider 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 choose not to; and
  • Do not focus on one religion or holiday to the exclusion of any employee’s beliefs or observances.

A little extra 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!