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December 19, 2012
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Holiday Parties:
Bah Humbug or Best Practices?
 
The holiday season is upon us, which means many employers are planning Holiday parties. Now is an ideal time to review prudent policies and guidelines which may assist employers in making those events safer and recognizing areas of potential liability. We hope the following sample "Policy on Holiday Parties" proves helpful to you in that regard.

Service of Alcoholic Beverages

Without question, one of the most concerning aspects of the Holiday Party for the employer is the service of alcoholic beverages to employees and the potential for liability. Management should consider implementing the following "Best Practices" to reduce the risks involved in hosting these year-end events:

If alcohol is being served, be sure a third party is serving it - Don't let employees pour their own drinks. If you decide to serve alcohol at your party, don't hold the party in your office. Have the party off premises and make sure the servers have a liquor license. Have trained and experienced bartenders, and emphasize that they should not over-pour drinks. Offer plenty of non-alcoholic options and do not serve guests who appear intoxicated or underage. Close the bar an hour or more before the party ends.

Have a drink limit or an alcohol-free party - It is advisable to limit the number of alcoholic drinks served to any one individual. Drink tickets or using a cash bar are two ways to do this. If there's no behavior-altering substance available to your employees, or if you limit their access to it, chances are employees will remain in control of their actions. In addition to averting injuries, limiting alcohol consumption could prevent other types of actionable activities, such as property damage and sexual and other harassment incidents. The presence of alcohol can make people do things they normally wouldn't, and after the party is over, claims for damages and charges of discrimination could be filed.
 
Above all, normal work rules and standards apply to Holiday Parties - As a subtle reminder, consider holding an anti-harassment refresher in anticipation of the party. Inappropriate and unsolicited sexual advances or comments apply to women, as well as men. Employees should be reminded that company events are meant to be fun, but they must remember that their actions are still on display for their coworkers and supervisors to see. Inappropriate behavior can make a lasting negative impression that may be hard to overcome (think Twitter, Facebook and YouTube postings of inappropriate placement of mistletoe, off-the-wall party antics, kissing up to the Boss (literally), or sweaty group dancing to Gangnam Style (today's version of the Electric Slide)).
 
Be clear with your employees before the festivities begin - Make sure that your employees know your policy on substance abuse and anti-harassment and that this policy covers any work situation, including an office party. Include the policy in your employee handbook and post on office bulletin boards, and send it out by email as a reminder before the party. Remind your employees of your policy on harassment, including but not limited to sexual harassment. There is no place at your party for mistletoe. Behavior that is inappropriate in the workplace is also inappropriate at your party. Further, don't allow employees to use the party as an opportunity to advocate their faith or the faith of anyone else. Religious discrimination and religious harassment claims are among the fastest growing areas of discrimination claims.

If your company does not have a clear and specific substance abuse and anti-harassment policies, contact Schwarzberg & Associates to review and/or revise your Employee Handbook and other hiring documents.
 
Other Considerations

Attendance - Attendance at the Holiday Party cannot and should not be mandatory.

Scheduling - When scheduling your party, consider that employees are less likely to overindulge on a work night than on a Friday or Saturday night.

Check your insurance policy - An important step in your party planning should be reviewing your business insurance policy. Confirm that your comprehensive general liability policy covers liabilities arising from the event. Review your insurance policies for alcohol-related exclusions. Contact your insurance agent for details.

Consider holding a "Family-Friendly" party - Take the focus off the typical "sit and drink" party by inviting your employees' spouses and children to the gathering. Plan activities for the children; perhaps hire a musician, magician or storyteller. This type of party recognizes the employees' family, not just the employees.
 
Office Holiday parties can be fantastic opportunities for team building and networking. Spending time with colleagues and co-workers in a relaxed setting can build trusting relationships and find opportunities and talents that may not have been apparent in the day-to-day work setting. Holiday office parties serve to build morale and thank employees for a year of hard work and dedication. Management is well advised to follow the few suggested precautions listed in this Employment Alert to ensure a safe and enjoyable Holiday Party this year.
 
The Schwarzberg & Associates Employment Law Compliance and Defense Practice Group is here to help you defend employment claims, develop policies, procedures, and proactive responsive measures to these and other employment related issues. Please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Schwarzberg & Associates Employment Law Group: Steve Schwarzberg, Kristin Ahr, Grace Murillo or Lisa Kohring at 561-659-3300 to obtain more information about our firm
 
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