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Dec 2009
04
December 04, 2009

Office Holiday Parties -- a Legal Minefield

With the holiday season upon us, many employers are planning holiday parties for employees. Often, alcohol will be provided. If there is an alcohol-related accident following the party, is the employer at risk? The short answer is "yes." But at risk of what?

Courts have increasingly held social hosts responsible for alcohol-related incidents, such as auto accidents or property damage, that occur as a result of excessive alcohol being served. Employers are not immune from this responsibility and you can’t rely on workers’ comp to limit liability.

A common side effect of alcohol is boorish behavior. Just as employers are liable for harassment during work hours, courts also hold employers liable for harassment at after-hours work functions, including holiday parties.

Employers should always make certain that minors (people under 21) are not being served alcohol. Michigan law specifically prohibits the serving of alcohol to minors, and social host liability has been imposed on private individuals who served alcohol to minors.

Another effective approach used by some employers is to provide everything except the alcohol and utilize a cash bar. This further removes the employer from the act of furnishing the alcohol.

Steps to Limit Potential Liability

  • Hire professional bartenders: Even if you have an open bar, it is better to have someone such as a bartender dispensing the alcoholic drinks. Instruct bartenders as to when to limit alcoholic service. That way, gatekeepers limit the access to the alcohol and can prevent inebriated people from further imbibing.
  • Serve food: Make sure there are plenty of things to eat so that people are not drinking on empty stomachs; avoid having too many salty foods since these encourage people to drink more.
  • Have plenty of soft drinks: Provide sodas, sparkling juices, bottled water and lots of other appealing "soft" drink options.
  • Hand out drink tickets: Give all attendees a limited number of tickets for the open bar; once the tickets are gone, they can purchase their own drinks (reducing your liability) or drink the plentiful soft options.
  • Skip the alcohol altogether: Have an earlier holiday gathering, such as a lunch banquet, and do not serve alcohol.
  • Offer shuttles or taxis: Make it easy for employees to get to and from the party without driving by distributing free taxi passes so an employee can ride home that evening and back to work the next day in a cab.
  • Remind everyone of the policies: Before the party, circulate a memo reminding people of your sexual harassment policies; let them know that the policies apply to events outside of the 9-5 environment. Remind supervisors of the rules and what to do if they witness or hear of potential harassment.
  • Have a dress code: Suggest a dress code for the party that keeps things professional. Avoiding provocative dress can alleviate some forms of harassment.
  • Host a family event: Instead of limiting your party attendees to employees, invite their spouses or families. Consider inviting clients or business partners. The presence of other people may help keep the event appropriate.
  • Avoid certain traditions: While mistletoe may be your favorite decoration of the season, it really doesn't belong in the office. Avoid anything that could contribute to an environment of harassment.

The holidays should be a time of happiness. Harassment during a party or a tragic accident afterward can cause great difficulties, not only from a liability standpoint, but also for employee morale. With some forethought, employers should be able to provide an enjoyable and safe evening for everyone, while at the same time effectively minimizing the risk of liquor-related liability.

If you have any questions regarding employer liability, or any other labor and employment matter, please feel free to contact any member of our Labor and Employment Practice Group.
 

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