Dec. 13, 2016
As we ring in the holiday season, an estimated 80 percent of companies are planning to host holiday parties for their employees. Although these celebrations can build morale, employers may find coal in their stockings and lawsuits on their desks if the holiday parties snowball into chaos—as seen in the newly released movie "Office Christmas Party."
Though extreme, the movie serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen if steps aren't taken to minimize legal risks before festivities commence. Despite the best of intentions, employers who aren't vigilant may risk lawsuits based on discrimination, harassment or injuries. When planning holiday parties, employers should make a list and check it twice—or risk a costly lawsuit.
1. DON'T: Use the term "Christmas party," or emphasize a specific religion.
Although holiday parties are often held near Christmas, it's important to avoid placing emphasis on a specific religion. Lawsuits can be filed against employers under Title VII for hosting a "Christmas" party, displaying Christmas trees and/or singing Christmas songs.
Employers can help prevent religious discrimination claims by being as inclusive of all beliefs as possible—for example, by calling it a "holiday party." Employers should also consider incorporating inclusiveness into other party elements, such as entertainment, decorations and even food options.
2. DON'T: Offer an open bar, or let guests drive home intoxicated.
Alcohol is usually the main culprit behind holiday party mishaps, including sexual harassment, fights, injuries and impaired driving. Although it may be unrealistic to eliminate alcohol entirely, an open bar with unlimited drinks is never a good idea. Instead, employers should consider limiting the amount of alcohol that guests can consume.
Despite most holiday parties being hosted after work hours and away from company property, employers can still be held vicariously liable for acts of their employees that cause injury or damage to others. Employers should remember that diminished capacity from alcohol consumption isn't a viable defense to harassment or assault claims. Moreover, many states—including Ohio—have social host laws that assign liability to those who serve alcohol to intoxicated or underage individuals.
To avoid liability, employers should set an end time for the bar and consider hiring professional bartenders to serve alcohol to guests. It's also wise to provide hotel rooms, cab vouchers and/or designated drivers to employees who are too inebriated to drive home.
3. DON'T: Allow employees to engage in inappropriate conduct.
Because alcohol tends to lower one's inhibitions, employees are more likely to engage in inappropriate behavior, such as sexual harassment, fights or impaired driving—leading to lawsuits. In these situations, employees can even claim a hostile work environment. For instance, in a case similar a scene in the "Office Christmas Party" movie, a lawsuit was filed against an employer as a result of sexually explicit gifts being exchanged at the holiday party. The court agreed that the gifts contributed to a hostile work environment.
To help prevent inappropriate conduct, employers should make it clear that company policies and standards of conduct still apply at the holiday party. It might also be a good idea to offer refresher training on appropriate workplace conduct in the weeks leading up to the festivities.
4. DON'T: Dismiss employee claims related to discrimination and harassment.
Unfortunately, no matter how much an employer plans ahead or trains its employers, it's impossible to completely eliminate all of the risks associated with holiday parties—employees can still have lapses in judgment. In these cases, it's imperative for employers to take any complaints about harassment or discrimination seriously, and take steps to investigate them immediately. Employers should handle these complaints in the same way they would be handled if the incident had occurred during normal working hours. A fair, thorough investigation can limit or avoid potential liability. After investigating, employers should take the necessary corrective action.
Brantley is an associate attorney at the Cleveland office of Fisher
Phillips, a national labor and employment law firm. She represents employers in
a variety of labor and employment legal matters, including litigation in state
and federal courts and before various administrative agencies.