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Mitigating Risk for Your Holiday Office Party

December 8, 2021 | by B. Kevin Burke, Jr.
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Hosting a holiday work event? Plan ahead to help keep everyone safe.

Each year at this time, we find it valuable to offer a few reminders to our clients and community when it comes to hosting holiday gatherings for your employees. We are seeing more and more organizations returning to in-person holiday events, and with that comes some important issues to consider when it comes to protecting your company and your employees, while still offering the valuable benefits of a holiday celebration.
 
Here in New York, and in much of the country, the COVID-19 numbers are once again on the rise. That may be the first thing to consider: is the benefit of a holiday gathering worth the risk of potential COVID-19 infections among your employees? Only you can make that decision for your organization, but here are a few things to consider.
 
The reality is, holiday gatherings are all about the food and drink, and that means no masks. Beyond loss of productivity if workers are out sick, there is the issue of potential liability if an employee contracts COVID-19.  
 
A few other key elements to consider:
 
Alcohol: While most events offer alcohol, there are guidelines to minimizing the risk. They include:

  1. Limiting the types of alcohol: Keeping it to beer and wine, and making sure there are plenty of non-alcoholic beverages, is a good start.

  2. Drink Tickets: While this sounds like a good idea to limit the number of drinks an employee consumes, the reality is, the non-drinkers are more than happy to pass off their unused tickets to a friend. That doesn’t mean don’t utilize drink tickets, rather just understand they aren’t fool proof. 

  3. Length of party: Less time equals less alcohol consumption. There are two options to consider: keeping the length of the party shorter, or, limiting the time within the party that alcohol is served. Both can help curb over-consumption. 

  4. Rideshare Services: It is advisable to not only cover the cost of a rideshare for an employee that has had too much to drink, but to publicize that to your employees in advance. When it comes to potential liability, you want to make sure you have taken as many steps in good faith to keep your employees safe as possible. 

 
Social interactions: People tend to relax outside of the office and perhaps say and do things they might not do in the confines of the 9-5. There are countless examples of employers being held liable for the actions of their employees outside of the office at after-hours events. Again, some of the risk may be mitigated by clearly communicating (in writing) expectations for those who attend.

Employees need to know that although it will be a social event, the same rules and expectations of the office will apply. Many long, expensive, and time-consuming sexual harassment claims are born out of office parties. Make sure you are taking steps to reduce your risk.
 
Don’t mix work and play: Some employers will “hire” their employees to act as bartenders, or to set up, assist with, or close an office party. It is not advisable to mix working and a company party for a variety of liability reasons. Let your employees be guests, not workers, and you’ll avoid any blurring of the lines.
 
Location: While it can be economical to hold your office party at the office, in terms of insurance and liability, it can make more sense to hold your event at a restaurant, bar, or function hall. That can also reduce the potential for employees to slip back to their desk and answer emails or engage in work during a non-working event.
 
Attendance: This is huge. We advise our clients to make attendance at any holiday gathering optional. If you make it mandatory, you may increase the risk of liability in the event something happens. Mandatory attendance, in essence, makes it an extension of your workday, and can reduce an employer’s defense if there is a claim.
 
We work closely with our employer clients to offer guidance tailored to their specific situation. There is no one size fits all rule here. Holiday parties can be a crucial part of employee morale and building a strong team in your organization. However, it is equally important to make sure you are minimizing the risk and ensuring employees can have a safe and fun time while protecting your company.
 
Gross Shuman’s Labor & Employment Practice Group is available to assist in addressing any questions you may have regarding these or any other COVID vaccine-related developments. Please contact Kevin Burke, Hugh Carlin, or Katherine Liebner for information relevant to your employment situation.