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Office Parties Coming Right Up: Things to Consider Before the Holiday Season

By Sophie M. Deitrich, SHRM-CP, Small Business HR Lead, Compliance Center

Pumpkins are in every shop window, costume parties are being planned, and decor in yellows, oranges and reds are being displayed everywhere. We know what this means— Halloween is right around the corner, and closely behind is the holiday season.

For many offices this is a much-anticipated time of year due to special events, paid holiday time away from work, and opportunities to reflect on the earlier part of the year. Office parties will shortly be in full swing, providing employees with an opportunity to celebrate and socialize with their colleagues, but they can also cause headaches and liability risk for employers— especially when alcohol is involved.

While the risks of hosting and attending company office parties are not completely avoidable, small efforts on an employer’s part can certainly help reduce risk. Minimize this risk with some advanced planning so you and your team can spend your office parties enjoying the celebration, rather than ending up in a disciplinary action situation, or worse. Below please find a checklist to consider when planning for your upcoming festivities.

Limiting Alcohol-Related Incidents:

Pre-Party steps:
  • Issue a refresher of your conduct policies.

    • Sexual harassment, anti-discrimination, personal conduct, safety, and dress code policies, for example.

  • Ensure employees understand that any misconduct at the party will not be tolerated, and policy violations will be subject to disciplinary action.

  • Remind employees of the proper protocol for reporting any misconduct they witness, or learn of, during or after the party.

Logistics for the office party:
  • Employers may be held liable for injuries caused to third parties by employees under the influence of alcohol. Employers can help reduce such liability by making it clear that office party attendance is voluntary.

  • If alcohol is served during the office party, employers should consider implementing safeguards when possible, such as:

    • Hold the party during the workday or mid-week, when employees will be less likely to drink excessively, if at all, knowing they must continue to work after the party and work the next day.

    • Consider limiting the type, or number, of drinks per employee by providing drink tickets and/or setting a cut-off time for alcohol service.

    • Reduce the likelihood of inappropriate conduct by allowing employees to invite a guest or their significant other. Employees tend to be more reserved around their partners and people they’re not familiar with.

    • For onsite parties, prohibit employees from serving alcohol to themselves and others, and consider hiring professional bartenders or wait staff who can refuse service to anyone visibly intoxicated.

    • Consider an off-site location for the party where professional bartenders know how to respond to excessive drinking.

    • Provide activity-based entertainment (trivia, games, etc.) so that drinking is not the focus of the party.

    • Ensure food is served throughout the duration of the party, and offer a variety of nonalcoholic drinks.

    • Arrange transportation or consider offering to reimburse for taxi or rideshare costs so employees are less inclined to drive themselves home after drinking.

Other areas to consider:

Preventing Wage-and-Hour Claims by Non-Exempt Employees
  • Some employees may be entitled to be paid for their attendance at employer-sponsored office parties.

  • If you don’t plan on paying non-exempt employees for their attendance at the office party, ensure that:

    • Party attendance is entirely voluntary.

    • The party is held outside of regular workday hours.

    • No business minded activity takes place at the party (e.g., production speeches and bonus distribution).

    • Employees do not, and are not, expected to perform any employer benefitting activities at the party, such as: preparing for and working at the party if outside of regular workday hours. The Department of Labor does not recognize an exception for “volunteering” if the nonexempt employee is performing nonexempt functions.

Diversity and inclusion
  • Employers should be mindful and inclusive of the varying holiday traditions of their employees. A singular focus on one holiday should be avoided, for example: specific decorations, activities and internal communications related to Christmas.

  • Employees could have religious beliefs that don’t allow them to attend an event that falls on a religious holiday or where alcohol is served, so be mindful of pressure or incentives placed on attendance.

  • Think twice before hanging mistletoe. For inclusivity, and avoidance of harassment claims, holiday customs – even in a festive atmosphere – should remain appropriate for a workplace.

The information presented in this post is current as of the publication date. The information included does not constitute legal advice.

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