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Virtual Holiday Parties Can Lead to Trouble for Employers

December 9, 2020 | by B. Kevin Burke, Jr.
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Employers planning to hold virtual celebrations may want to consider the potential liability before raising a Zoom cocktail with employees

A recent Gallup poll found half of the American workforce is working from home at least occasionally, and 25 percent of American workers are working entirely from home during this pandemic.

There are a number of liability concerns for employers to consider in this new paradigm. Protecting company property, liability for workers injured while working remotely, and security issues when it comes to protecting client data are all issues magnified by remote working. But today we are going to look at another issue to consider with the Holiday Season upon us.

Each year, we counsel employers on the do’s and don’ts of hosting holiday parties. While they can be a great way to celebrate your company’s success, and a morale boost for your team, holiday parties pose several risks. For most companies in New York, in-person holiday parties are off the table for 2020; however, that doesn’t erase potential liability related to drinking altogether.

A growing number of employers are planning “virtual parties” as a way to gather and celebrate in a socially responsible manner. Employees are encouraged to dress up, prepare their favorite party foods and cocktails, and “gather” in front of their screens to celebrate. It’s the third item on that list that should give employers reason to pause. The question is simple: If you encourage employees to drink alcohol at a company event, even a virtual one, are you opening the door to potential liability? The short answer is, it depends on the state you live in. The overarching answer is, assume you can be.

That doesn’t mean these virtual happy hours and holiday parties are a bad idea, but it does mean there are issues to consider.

The key to avoiding conflict comes down to, as it often does in many instances, strong advanced communication. That can include:

  • Reminding employees to drink responsibly at the “event” and to not drink if they plan to drive afterwards.
  • Reminding employees that no minors may consume alcohol and that any minor employees found to be drinking or any employees who provide alcohol to minors will be subject to termination.
  • Set the tone for the event—as the leadership, don’t be seen on camera consuming an excessive number of drinks.
  • Limit the duration of the party.
  • Organize trivia contests, games and other events to help ensure the focus of the party isn’t drinking.

Ideally, the safest plan is to not mention or encourage alcohol consumption at any company event, be they in-person or virtual. But, in reality, we know employers are holding these type of virtual celebrations. With that in mind, we advise you to have strong policies in place, to openly communicate in advance of your event, and to lead by example.

If you have questions or concerns about these, or any labor and employment issues, our team of experienced labor employment attorneys at Gross Shuman PC are here to help. Give us a call and let’s talk about your business.

B. Kevin Burke Jr. is an attorney with Gross Shuman, P.C. He focuses his practice on the litigation of contract disputes, labor and employment issues, intellectual property protection, and trade secret cases. He can be reached at 716.854.4300 ext. 292 or kburke@gross-shuman.com.