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How to Reduce Liability at this Year's Holiday Party

Holiday parties are a prime way to boost morale and team work in the office. One key component of most parties, however, is alcohol. A 2012 survey found that 61 percent of organizations plan to serve alcohol at their holiday parties, and of these organizations – only half plan to regulate alcohol consumption – leaving a big hole for employer liability.

According to the survey, celebrations held away from the office, which account for 70 percent of functions, boosts the chance of intoxication and employee misconduct. How can you prevent harassment and intoxication within your team this year?

57 percent of companies plan to use drink tickets to limit employees on their alcoholic intake, while other companies are resorting to only serve certain types of alcohol (42%) and even a cash bar (25%). To avoid these last minute restrictions, one-third of all organizations have a formal or informal policy that allows and limits drinking at work-related events.

The Risks

While employee parties are often a good and fun treat, there are laws that cover employees from some negative situations that often arise (consider harassment and potentially illegal employee conduct). Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 covers employees in environments where 15 or more employees (including regular part-time ones) are gathered. For conduct to be considered unlawful under the Title VII, the conduct must be unwelcome; and the conduct must be sufficiently severe or pervasive. One single, extremely serious incident of harassment at an office party, may leave the organization open to a Title VII claim.

Also, consider the dangers of drunk driving liability. A California appellate court found an employer liable for a DUI accident that left one dead after an employee left a holiday work party at which they consumed alcohol. “It is irrelevant that foreseeable effects of the employee’s negligent conduct (here, the car accident) occurred at a time the employee was no longer acting within the scope of his or her employment,” the court ruled.

How to Limit Liability

Employers should consider taking the following steps to limit their liability while still hosting fun, morale-building festivities this season:

  • Have a comprehensive, written anti-harassment policy stated clearly in employee handbooks.
  • Before the event, send an email to all staff members attending reminding them to act responsibly at the party and clearly state the zero-tolerance for inappropriate behavior.
  • To avoid suggestive attire, enforce the company’s dress code.
  • Make it clear that attendance at the party does not impact the person’s standing at the company – allow attendance to be at free will.
  • Set a tone of moderation regarding alcohol consumption. Stress that excessive alcohol consumption will not be tolerated.
  • Limit the number of drinks, or length of time during which alcohol will be served. Provide substantial non-alcoholic alternatives.

Should an employee or coworker become heavily intoxicated or noticeably drink too much, offer them a ride home in a taxi or, so long as you have not been drinking, drive them home safely. 


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