Letting loose in office holiday parties can land both employees and employers in serious legal trouble. Office parties no matter where and when they are held, are still what they are.
An official event.
A gesture as simple as an unwanted hug can land an employee in a sexual harassment lawsuit according to employment law attorney Melissa Fleischer. “It is the effect and not the intent that matters,” she says. Courts use reasonable person standards, which means any conduct that would offend a reasonable person is enough to constitute sexual harassment and mandates a prompt and thorough investigation by the employer.
Most employees tend to be more uninhibited at an offsite party than in an office setting, and often serving alcoholic beverages only makes them vulnerable to additional liability. The same is the case with employees driving back home under the influence. Fleischer offers practical tips to help employers avoid legal liability stemming from the actions of indiscriminate employees:
- Make attendance at a holiday party voluntary
- Do not have important meetings or ceremonies at the party
- Invite spouses and significant others to join employees
- Avoid serving alcohol and if you do, limit to beer and wine
- Have a designated bartender who watches the number of beverages being consumed
- Arrange for taxi service for employees returning home
- Consider a daytime luncheon in lieu of a dinner party
Case law in some states including New York protects employers from liability arising from employee misconduct. Fleischer recommends checking your state’s case law for common law negligence. Proactive measures to abate trouble always prove less costly than damage control.
Office Holiday Parties training is available as an on-demand video.