According to a recent survey, the number one reason employers have their tinsel in a tangle about office holiday parties is how much they cost. But the cost of tinsel and treats is nothing compared to the expense of defending an employment lawsuit. The best way to keep holiday parties within budget—and a business out of the courtroom—is to follow these steps to minimize liability.
Provide a safe way home. If an employee suffers injuries while en route to or from a holiday party, or while running errands for the party, then a court may consider those injuries to have happened during work—potentially resulting in liability. See Bolognino v. Lemek LLC, No. 296 SEPT. TERM 2014, 2015 WL 7454751, at *1 (Md. Ct. Spec. App. Nov. 24, 2015). Consider providing options like complimentary car services or designated drivers to assist with safe transportation.
Limit alcohol consumption. Unwanted sexual attention may make December the most un-wonderful time of the year. For some, the combination of alcohol and a “party” is an excuse to let common sense fly out the window, leading to bad behaviors like placing a pool cue under a woman’s skirt or fondling a man’s crotch. See Schmidt v. Town of Cheverly, MD., No. GJH-13-3282, 2016 WL 4544003, at *1 (D. Md. Aug. 30, 2016); Miller v. Kowa Am. Corp., No. 215CV05671CASEX, 2016 WL 4467880, at *1–2 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 22, 2016). What is a party-loving employer to do? Consider hiring a professional bartender who is trained in recognizing and dealing with intoxicated patrons, or providing an alcohol-free venue, both of which can help keep employee behavior within appropriate boundaries.
Set appropriate expectations. Make clear that the usual behavioral and conduct expectations apply and help set the appropriate tone for a holiday party. In the end, employees likely will hold employers to that same expectation. One food retailer faced a lawsuit when an employee received a toy shaped like male genitals at an office party. After the employee was fired, he sued and claimed the employer had retaliated against him for his complaint that the gift constituted sexual harassment. See Roberts v. Trader Joe’s Co., No. BC617545 (Cal. Super. Ct. L.A. Cty. Apr. 19, 2016).
Be culturally sensitive. Holiday parties should be welcoming to employees of all religions and traditions, so be careful when incorporating religious symbols into your displays.
Optional participation. Employees of different cultures and religions may resent having to attend a function celebrating traditions and customs that are not their own. Participation in holiday parties should be optional, and no punitive action should be taken against those who choose not to attend.
As budgets for the office holiday party fall into place, remember that an employer’s biggest savings may be the lawsuit that never occurs. Please contact Schiff’s Labor & Employment attorneys with any question about training, policies, and guidance surrounding decking the halls this year, and Happy Holidays to all.
 See Society for Human Resource Management, “SHRM Survey: Fewer Offices Hosting a Holiday Party for Employees” (Nov. 23, 2015).