Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 33 seconds

It’s that time of year when friends, families and co-workers get together to celebrate successes, relationships and sometimes, just surviving another year. No matter the reason for the festivity, it’s the wise employer who plans the get-together that doesn't result in liability for the raucous behavior of staffers or other invitees.

According to Columbus lawyer Bill Nolan, Managing Partner of Barnes & Thornburg LLP, there are several steps a law firm or business owner can take to decrease potential liability when hosting holiday festivities. For example, holding a party during the day, rather than in the evening or at night, is a great way to reduce the likelihood that attendees will imbibe too much or behave inappropriately.

That’s important because if an employer hosts any type of event that permits or enables employees to behave inappropriately, such as overdrinking, that results in an employee uttering sexually inappropriate comments to co-workers, the company could be held liable. There’s also the concern about employees drinking too much at a company party then driving home drunk.

Another suggestion is to make the festivity open to spouses and even families, Nolan says. “It’s less likely an employee will misbehave when their spouse is right there with them,” he says. In fact, welcoming spouses or families might simply add to the merriment of the moment.

Business coach Steve Smith, President of California-based Growth Source Coaching, an entity that advises business owners and companies how to achieve greater success, favors holding holiday celebrations outside the office rather than at the office. His reasoning is practical on a few levels.

“Unless you’re talking about a real big law firm, there simply isn’t the space to host a party at the office. But, if holding the event at a restaurant or other public place, public decorum takes over,” he says. In addition, when a holiday party is held in a public venue, the location’s bartender is serving the alcohol. That can go a long way toward reducing the boss’ potential liability should an employee drink too much at a company party. Moreover, it is generally the restaurant or whomever supervises the bartender who is liable if a patron is over-served, not the party host.

Smith has fond memories of the way a former employer in Manhattan handled holiday celebrations years ago. “They took employees to a Christmas play or holiday dinner theater,” he said. Depending on where the company is located, the employer can treat employees and their families to a day at a local amusement park or sports outing, Smith says.

Hosting Parties At the Office

Smith offers several suggestions to company owners who choose to host a holiday celebration on-premises, despite the potential liability landmines. Those tips include:

  • Limiting the selection of alcohol
  • Bringing in a bartender to not only control liquor intake, but to slow people down since they have to wait in line to acquire more drinks
  • Providing a limited number of drink tickets to each employee with their names written on them. That way, if someone doesn’t drink, they can’t simply offer their drink tickets to someone who does
  • Offering entertainment, such as a small orchestra, band or carolers to distract attendees from liquor and refocus their attention on the activity

Since throwing a holiday celebration isn’t the everyday occurrence, Nolan offers another piece of advice to would-be hosts. “Any time you do something different than your usual, like host a party, it’s wise to check with your insurance agent or broker to ensure that if anything goes wrong, you and your company will be protected. This is a step that is often overlooked but should not be,” he says.

The Times, They Are a-Changin’

“In the 1970s, holiday parties and lunches were drinkable. That’s not so much the case anymore,” Smith says. Another shift on the party scene is simply that fewer companies are even offering such festivities in the first place.

Supporting that contention are results of a survey recently released in The Chicago Tribune. Two-thirds of the companies surveyed by the Society of Human Resources Management indicated they would be throwing a holiday party, down from 72% in 2012.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and freelance writer.

Last modified on Monday, 14 December 2015
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