Pro Tips: Five tips for avoiding holiday party-related lawsuits

You’ve barely thawed your Thanksgiving turkey and already we’re talking about all the trouble your employees could get into during the upcoming company holiday party. However, in our defense, adequately preparing for potential problems is an important part of the party planning process and can protect your company well beyond the holidays and clear into the new year.

The following are a list of five tips and tricks designed to mitigate your company’s risk of holiday party-related liability:

Limit the Holiday Spirit(s): If alcohol will be served at your holiday party (and trust us, there’s nothing wrong with that – we’re all adults after all!) be sure to limit how much alcohol any one person can have. In addition to potentially avoiding embarrassing encounters between employees, limiting alcohol can also protect you from so-called “dram shop” laws, which hold companies liable for the acts of their intoxicated patrons/employees who drink and later cause injury to themselves or others. To limit alcohol, experts suggest issuing a limited number of drink tickets per person, closing the bar a few hours before the end of the party, or asking servers to cut-off any visibly intoxicated employees. Finally, plan to have a cab service available or provide carpooling opportunities for employees who plan to drink.

Remove the religion: While the holiday season is associated with holy days for many religions, you should still be wary of the possibility for religious discrimination issues. Currently, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and most courts currently side with the idea that certain holiday decorations are secular, such as wreaths and Christmas trees, and that employers do not have to put up decorations associated with other religions, the EEOC also says that if an employee objects to any mandatory holiday customs or practices on religious grounds, you, as the company, may have to offer a reasonable accommodation to the objecting employee. Now, it should be noted that the requested accommodation must be reasonable and not cause the employer undue hardship. Some good examples of how to avoid liability include not making attendance at your holiday party mandatory, leaving any religious scriptures out of the festivities, or simply re-casting your holiday party as an end of year celebration.

Get Footloose: Ok, fine, you don’t have to follow Beaumont’s lead and ban dancing, but it is NOT advisable to include a “dance-off” or “dancing with the stars”-type competition at this year’s party! We’re not saying this in order to reduce dance-related embarrassment for employees, but rather to steer clear of the inevitable ruptured Achilles tendons, pulled muscles, groin pulls, herniated discs, and/or heart attacks that could go along with having your employees hit the dance floor in a competitive fashion. The reason? The resultant injuries from said dance-off will most likely implicate your workers compensation coverage, and could also increase the risk of FMLA and/or ADA issue.

Pay to party: We’ve already mentioned that it can be tricky to make attendance at your holiday mandatory, but in the event that you forgo this advice and do make it a requirement (such as if the CEO expects to give an end of the year or future goals speech), please note that the laws state that you must then pay employees for the time that they spend there. If the party is during traditional work hours, you don’t have to worry so much about this one, but if it’s scheduled for after hours, everyone should get paid and non-exempt employees that work more than 40 hours that week could even get overtime pay.

Say no to Mistletoe: Designating a spot at the holiday party for employees to smooch? Quite simply, no good can come of it (unless a sexual harassment suit is your company’s idea of a good time!) Nix the mistletoe and also be sure to send out a quick memo ahead of the holiday party reminding employees about your company’s anti-harassment policy to make it abundantly clear that even though they may not be actively performing work duties, they are still very much expected to behave like the upstanding citizens you hired in the first place.

And finally, remember, that as the one in charge of planning any corporate event, the goal is to create a safe and appropriate celebration commensurate with your corporate culture, not to create an evening of debauchery that will not only live on in infamy, but also in court records!