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Monitor This Year’s Holiday Party and Avoid Next Year’s Litigation

How many of us remember the iconic holiday party in the movie “Scrooged?”  As Bill Murray is passing out mail, the staff is drinking more than they should, employees are groping each other, and how can anyone forget the employee who is copying their bottom while sitting on the Xerox machine? “Enjoy yourself, it’s the Christmas party.”

How many of us have attended such events?  Probably more than we would like to admit.

Regardless of your point of view, times have changed.  Sexual harassment is the law. Drunk driving jeopardizes public safety and can cause you and/or your employees to end up in jail.  Social mores no longer condone the conduct demonstrated in that now famous “Scrooged” party.

However, this does not mean that employers should abandon holiday parties or avoid social gatherings.  Such events should be encouraged. Social scientists suggest that employees should be given the opportunity to gather, to build comradery and celebrate – – something that is all too often forgotten during most of the busy work year.

So as employers, let’s not become Ebenezer Scrooge. Have a holiday party but abide by some of the following suggestions and avoid the complaints or lawsuits resulting from the behavior of overly zealous party mongers.

  • Plan your holiday party as a luncheon without alcohol beverages or an evening event during the workweek that wraps up at a reasonable hour. No one wants to go to work the following day with a hangover.
  • Plan to have plenty of food to go along with the alcohol that will most likely be consumed.
  • Consider a “ticket system” for alcoholic beverages being served instead of an open bar.
  • Plan for one or more supervisors to be the party’s “designated drivers.” They should be tasked with refraining from alcohol consumption and monitoring party events to make certain things do not get out of control.
  • Discourage any “after party” events.
  • Encourage employees to bring their spouse or significant others to the party; it could discourage others from engaging in inappropriate conduct.
  • Encourage employees to wear office attire or business casual clothing; discourage employees from wearing inappropriate attire to the party.
  • Do not allow anyone to hang mistletoe at the party (or in the office).
  • While encouraging employees to have a good time, remind employees that workplace policies remain in effect during the party and that misconduct at the party will result in discipline.
  • Plan the party at a venue that does not offer overnight lodging.
  • If your company intends to distribute holiday gifts at the party, make certain that similarly situated employees receive the same or similar gifts.  Alternatively, make certain that you can explain why similarly situated employees received gifts having dissimilar values.
  • Discourage employees from giving gifts to each other at the party to avoid employees feeling left out or embarrassed because he or she simply cannot afford to give a gift to others.
  • Plan your holiday party so as to avoid any religious themes or the singing of Christmas carols (identify the event as a holiday party rather than a Christmas or Hanukkah party).
  • Do not compel employees to attend the holiday party. It is unlikely that all of your employees celebrate the same holidays.
  • Arrange for taxi or limousine service to be available at no cost to employees to transport those who inevitably over-indulge.

Celebrate the holidays; celebrate the past year; celebrate your employees but remember, a controlled party will help limit an employer’s potential liability for discrimination and sexual harassment. It will also avoid potential social host liability for allowing someone to consume too much alcohol and then injure a third party while driving home.  It will allow ALL of the employees – – males and females, rich and poor, Christians, Jews, Muslims and others – – to enjoy the party!

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