The holiday season is often a time for festive parties where employers can thank employees for a job well done. However, these celebrations may carry a great deal of risk—from claims of religious discrimination and sexual harassment to drunk driving.
Many employers have stopped serving alcohol at office parties to avoid a myriad of issues ranging from discrimination, harassment, inappropriate behavior and offensive conduct to car accidents and injuries.
If alcohol is involved, management should make sure that all employees are sober before driving. My daughter works for a company that asks everyone to come to the party with the understanding that they will be arranging for rides home for everyone using cabs and ride sharing companies like Lyft, regardless of how far away the employee lives. They understand that if an intoxicated employee leaves the holiday party and injures someone, or causes property damage, the employer may be liable for negligence.
Think about your office decorations and leave mistletoe out of the equation. Don’t do anything that could encourage inappropriate behavior with potential claims of sexual harassment.
Employers should make sure that employees are aware of the employer's zero tolerance policy for discrimination and harassment and code of conduct. Whether the event is held in the lunchroom or held offsite and during “non working” hours, all company policies are in effect. Employees must still treat each other with respect and common courtesy.
Use CEA as a sounding board if you have concerns about plans for your holiday party. Call us at 800.399.5331.
Kim (Parker) Gusman, President & CEO
XpertHR offers 9 ways an employer can minimize the risk of liability when it comes to holiday parties:
1. Enforce discrimination, harassment and employee conduct policies—Workplace policies regarding discrimination, harassment, employee dating, employee conduct and its dress code remain in effect even during the holiday party, and employees as well as supervisors will be liable for violations.
2. Have supervisors set a good example—Supervisors should lead the way and set a good example for the rest of the employees by enforcing and complying with the employer's policies regarding discrimination and harassment as well as the employer's code of conduct.
3. Exercise caution if serving alcohol—If an employer decides to serve or allow alcohol, it should designate a management employee to monitor alcohol intake and make sure employees do not become intoxicated or incoherent.
4. Keep the focus off religion—In planning for any holiday party, it is important for an employer to avoid overly religious symbols such as Christmas trees, nativity scenes and mistletoe when it comes to party decorations and avoid overly religious music.
5. Do not make attendance mandatory—Some employees may not want to attend the holiday party and if attendance is mandatory it may be considered working time and hourly employees may be entitled to overtime.
6. Carefully plan the menu and entertainment—Make sure to take the individual needs and concerns of diverse employees into account.
7. Be inclusive of all employees—Invite employees working in all offices or job sites and even employees who telecommute or work remotely. Remember – independent contractors are not employees!
8. Consider whether to invite spouses or significant others—Remember to be inclusive of all employees and respect their personal relationships.
9. Respond to complaints in a timely fashion—Once on notice that an employee is complaining of discrimination, harassment or inappropriate conduct, the employer and HR have a legal duty to follow up and document the complaint and begin an investigation if warranted.