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The Holiday Office Party: How Not to Get Sued For Christmas

The office holiday party: A time to spread cheer, bond with your staff, and get hammered by the plaintiff's bar. Here's how to fa-la-la without the lawsuit.

The days are getting shorter, the wind a little nippier and the stores are full of decorations. It's the time of year that little kids and plaintiffs lawyers love.

The latter are especially fond of one holiday tradition: the office party. Not to be a grinch, but in the United States of the early 21st century there are legal risks to consider when you invite your staff to share adult beverages and unwind. Remember, it's all holiday fun until somebody files a lawsuit! So plan ahead—so you can throw a great party that doesn’t land you in court.

Here are a few things to consider:

Go easy on the eggnog

Everyone loves talking about Barry in accounting who dances with his desk chair after one too many cocktails, but over-serving alcohol is the main reason for legal problems at any office event. If you don’t think it will matter to employees, you may want to forego alcohol altogether.  If you do host a bar, here are some tips:

  • Hire a professional.  They are trained to monitor partygoers and prevent over-service. Offering a visibly drunk person more alcohol can make you liable for their actions later. State laws differ here – talk to your lawyer or search “dramshop” with your state for more information.
  • Feed early and often  Most partygoers head straight for the bar, so strategically place finger foods nearby. Replenish fare regularly and make sure that there is enough food for everyone. 
  • Prevent binge drinking  Try issuing drink tickets, or serving only wine and beer. Stock plenty of non-alcoholic beverages, and make water bottles easily available.
  • Call the game after the third quarter  Stop serving alcohol at least an hour before the party is over…but make sure that there is something fun to keep people at the party to sober up.
  • Exclude minors.  Serving to anyone under 21 is still illegal, even at a private gathering. No exceptions.
  • Taxi!  Encourage the use of cabs for those leaving without a designated driver. Offer a return taxi voucher for partygoers that leave without their car.
  • Bosses stay sober. Consider not drinking at all.  If something does happen, you will be better able to stop inappropriate behavior and document what happened.

Keep an eye on the misteltoe

Your sexual harassment policy doesn’t go on break when the party starts. But you have to recognize that even the best anti-harassment policies won’t stop all inappropriate behavior. So consider some additional tactics to help stack the deck in your favor.

  • Reread the above advice on alcohol. Most inappropriate behavior starts with excessive drinking.
  • Invite spouses… Bringing the wife (or husband or significant other) on the scene helps employees remember that they’re married.
  • ..but not too many other outsiders. If you include business partners or investors in your celebration, remember that you have to make sure they behave, too. Harassment suits aren’t only spurred by other employees.

Don’t go naked

Your party will probably go off without a hitch, but that space between "probably" and "actually" is what you buy insurance for. Before the party, review your commercial liability and employment practices policies. Make sure that they cover actions at any off-site venue, including injuries or harassment problems.  If your policy does not provide this coverage, ask your insurance broker about other options, like special event insurance.

Taking the time to think about and manage risk now will allow you to relax with your employees and enjoy the party. Happy Holidays!
 
 

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IMAGE: iStock
Last updated: Dec 1, 2011

CHAS RAMPENTHAL | Columnist | General Counsel, LegalZoom

Chas Rampenthal is general counsel and vice president of product development at LegalZoom. He's also a former talk radio host (KTLK AM 1150 at Clear Channel) and an entrepreneur himself, as the founder of LegalEndeavor.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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