holiday party

The Do’s and Don’ts of Company Holiday Parties

Experts weigh-in on how employers can host a festive holiday celebration for their employees while protecting themselves from legal issues.

Click here for an audio introduction to “The Do’s and Don’ts of Holiday Parties”

The holiday season is in full swing, and for many New Jersey businesses, that means one thing: planning the company holiday party. Whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a small business with less than 50 employees, most of the state’s businesses will host some form of holiday gathering this month – and with good reason.

“Company holiday parties are an excellent way to boost morale for your entire team, and they’re also an opportunity to get to know the people you work with – both fellow employees and upper management – in a relaxed and festive setting,” says Allison Sargent, founder and CEO of Allison Sargent Events.

However, although these events are supposed to be a fun, casual way to celebrate the season with co-workers, they are still company functions. And that means there are a slew of potential issues that could arise – not the least of which are legal liabilities, particularly as it relates to the consumption of alcohol.

“Beyond being an occasion to relax and celebrate, holiday parties are a great opportunity for employers to thank employees and for employees to network with colleagues in a more casual environment. Unfortunately, holiday parties are also ripe with potential for disasters,” asserts Jennifer A. Passannante, partner at Hoagland, Longo, Moran, Dunst and Doukas, LLP. “Generally speaking, an employer may be liable for employee negligence or misconduct if the employee is acting ‘within the course and scope of employment,’ even at an off-site, employer-sponsored event like a holiday party.”

That’s why in addition to planning a party to entertain and thank their employees for a job well done this year, businesses both large and small must also do their part to avoid any potential legal issues or liabilities.

“To prevent harm to their employees, employers need to be aware that with a more casual environment, likely involving alcohol consumption, comes the potential for problems,” Passannante adds. “Carrying around mistletoe may be funny until someone feels uncomfortable. Dance-offs are entertaining until someone breaks an ankle. And shots of tequila seem like a great idea until an intoxicated employee is later arrested for causing a motor vehicle accident after leaving the party.”

Here are some do’s and don’ts for planning the company holiday party.

DO Limit Alcohol Consumption: The No. 1 issue that’s on the mind of every legal professional when it comes to helping clients navigate holiday party planning is how to approach the issue of alcohol consumption. According to Passannante, employers should consider an array of options when it comes to ensuring that their employees don’t have the opportunity to over-indulge – and then potentially get behind the wheel. “For employers, this can be accomplished via a limited bar with only wine and beer, a drink voucher system, or a cash bar,” she says. “Alcohol service should end prior to the end of the party, and tea, coffee and soft drinks can be made available before employees leave.”

James W. Bell, founder and CEO of Abel HR Services, Inc., notes that employers should always hire a professional bartender – and never leave this important task up to an employee. “A holiday party is not the time to break in a brand-new bartender – this person has your financial welfare in his or her hands, and needs to be trained to recognize when someone has had too much,” he says.

Employers may also want to sit down with their management team in advance and designate a few people to keep an eye on the crowd and look for signs that certain employees may have had too much. “Senior management should live up to their titles and try to stay reasonably sober so they can circulate the room watching for trouble,” he adds. “That way, it’s easier to keep track of who’s consuming what, and the bartender needs all the help he or she can get.”

Sargent also advises businesses to consider offering transportation to ensure that employees return home safely. “Many of our clients now offer car services home, arrange for available taxis or Uber, or provide train information,” she notes.

DON’T Make Attendance Mandatory: While all employees should be invited to attend, the company holiday party should remain completely voluntary and not be held during normal working hours. According to Scott A. Ohnegian, partner at Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland and Perretti, LLP, employers are liable for any alcohol-related liability issues as well as the potential for sexual or other harassment cases – and the situation is heightened if the employee can make the argument that an incident occurred during a mandatory work function. “Another legal issue you need to consider is that if the holiday party can in any way be construed as working time, non-exempt employees can make the case that they should be compensated for their time at this event,” he adds.

Additionally, many employers will take the holiday party as an opportunity to plan speeches from higher-level executives or schedule other work-related activities, but Ohnegian says that could be a recipe for trouble. “You have to be consistent with the idea that this is an off-hours, purely social gathering – so there shouldn’t be any work-related presentations or awards or lectures in any way,” he says. “The attendance and everything that happens at this event should be wholly unrelated to the business of the employer … you don’t want to give employees any reason to claim that they should be paid for their time at the holiday party because it felt like work.”

DO Have Activities Planned: If you gather all of your employees into a room with an open bar and nothing else to do, it’s easy for things to get out of hand. Whether it’s a DJ, photo booth, tricky tray, or any other type of game or activity, employers should consider having some form of entertainment at the party that doesn’t revolve around drinking.

“If your employees are busy dancing, then they’re not drinking,” Bell asserts. “You want everyone to be engaged in an activity to prevent a case where employees have nothing else to do except drink.”

DON’T Have the Party at the Office: According to Patrick T. Collins, Esq., chair of the New Jersey labor and employment group at Norris, McLaughlin and Marcus, PA, one of the most important decisions an employer can make when it comes time to plan a company holiday party is choosing the right venue – and if they want to protect themselves from legal issues, that venue probably shouldn’t be the conference room.

“When you hold the party off-site at a restaurant or catering facility, that venue is going to have insurance and a liquor license and presumably professional bartenders who are trained to see when someone has had too much,” he explains.

However, if the party must be held on-site due to budgetary reasons, Collins advises hiring an outside caterer and bartender who have that insurance. “Having an employee play bartender is asking for trouble, and the last thing you want to do is throw booze on the table and have everyone help themselves,” he adds.

DO Serve Plenty of Food: Another way employers can help ward off the negative behaviors associated with alcohol is to ensure that there’s plenty of food available throughout the event. Bell notes that employers should be mindful of accommodating any employees with known potential dietary restrictions or allergies.

“One of the first things you should think about is how to ensure that every employee will have plenty to eat,” Bell says. That means offering a variety of food to accommodate as many dietary needs and preferences as possible. “You can’t give employees an excuse not to be eating when alcohol is being served,” he adds.

DON’T Incorporate Religion: Though many holiday parties are scheduled around Christmas, employers should do their best not to associate the party with religion in any way. They should stick with referring to the party as either a “holiday” party or – better yet – an “end-of-year” party.

“Presumably, much of the intention behind a holiday party is to promote inclusion, boost morale, and foster a sense of togetherness, so all employees, regardless of religion, ethnicity, race, gender or any other protected characteristic, should feel welcome at the party,” Passannante says. Employers need to be particularly mindful of potential religious discrimination issues, she notes, such as in a case where holiday party attendance is required and religious activities occur.

DO Consider Inviting Spouses and Families: Inviting your employees’ spouses (and, when appropriate, even their children) may eat up a bit more of the budget, but it could also be a wise investment in encouraging employees to remain on their best behavior.

“Depending on the employer and the budget, you may want to consider inviting significant others and/or families, because you’re going to be far less likely to end up with issues caused by bad behavior if everyone is there with their husband or wife and children,” Ohnegian says.

DO Set a Dress Code: As many of today’s workplaces become increasingly casual, it’s always a good idea for employers to set a dress code for the holiday party. Employers should consider addressing their employees before the party to discuss proper behavior as well as what would be considered appropriate dress to prevent any potential issues, such as sexual harassment cases.

“It could be a friendly e-mail or meeting to remind your employees about appropriate conduct and guidelines about the dress code, or even rules related to any sort of holiday gift exchange you may be hosting,” Collins says. “No matter what issue you’re trying to avoid, when it comes to behavior in a casual environment like a holiday party, sometimes people just need the reminder.”


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