What Every Employer Needs to Know to Avoid an ‘Office Party Gone Wrong’

Attorney Patricia Weisberg of the law firm Walter & Haverfield, LLP.
Attorney Patricia Weisberg of the law firm Walter & Haverfield, LLP.

Editor’s Note: This is only TLNT’s second holiday season, but there’s a lot of great content you might have missed at this time last year. So for the next two weeks, we’re republishing a daily “Classic TLNT” holiday post that might help you cope with the season (and your workplace) a little bit better. 

By Patricia F. Weisberg

The annual office holiday party is a great way to reward your employees for a job well done throughout the past year. However, you might want to think twice before allowing spiked eggnog and other alcohol-laden holiday cheer to flow freely during the celebration.

While most employers still want to foster a sense of fun for employees during the holiday season, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that the traditional “wild office party” of past eras is not healthy for the spirit and camaraderie of the employees in the modern workplace.

Over the years, office parties have changed considerably. Alcohol used to flow freely, and employers would overlook inappropriate conduct, chalking it up to party behavior.

Today, this sort of activity is not worth the risk. In fact, the worst mistake an employer today can make in throwing a party is to offer unlimited alcohol, particularly in situations where no one is monitoring employee conduct.

There are risks when alcohol is served

Employer-sponsored parties present certain risks when alcohol is served. Some individuals who are under the influence of alcohol tend to lose their inhibition and engage in conduct they might not otherwise pursue had they not been drinking. Alcohol can make people too friendly or aggressive. Simply put, a holiday party can be a prime opportunity for sexual harassment and other inappropriate conduct to occur.

With this in mind, it’s in your best interest to take steps to reduce the likelihood of harm to employees, third parties, and to the company during an office party this holiday season.

The courts in many states have held that persons (including employers) who serve liquor may be held liable for injuries to guests or third parties as a result of accidents or injuries caused by an employee’s intoxication. The typical claim involves a situation where a drunk employee on the way home from a company function causes injuries to a third party.

It all depends on the state in which the party is held, however, so you must become familiar with your state’s particular laws governing such events and your company’s potential liability.

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In Ohio, for example, a social host (the employer, in the case of office parties), who provides alcohol on company premises is typically not liable to a third person subsequently injured by the intoxicated person. This means that the employer hosting a party on company premises is not liable to a third person who was injured by an intoxicated employee leaving the event.

According to Ohio law, if the event is held at a restaurant or party center, vendors or permit holders selling the alcohol for profit may be liable for resulting injuries to third parties if they provide alcohol to noticeably intoxicated guests. The company, however, generally has no liability.

In spite of the law in Ohio, however, it’s not unusual for an employer to be named as a defendant in a civil lawsuit if an intoxicated employee leaves any company-sponsored event and injures himself or herself or another person as a result. This could hold true in any state, so it’s important to remember such a scenario is a real possibility in today’s litigious society. Throughout the planning process, be familiar with your state’s laws regarding liability and alcohol at company-sponsored events. In many states, employers do face “host liability.”

Skip the mistletoe, and 10 more office party dos and don’ts

This doesn’t mean you have to eliminate the annual holiday celebration. There are ways companies can throw parties and still protect themselves against legal ramifications. Consider these suggestions when planning this year’s event:

  • Hold the party at a restaurant or bar during non-working hours.
  • Have a written policy prohibiting employees from behaving inappropriately, including drinking too much alcohol, at company-sponsored activities and distribute the policy again before the event.
  • Make attendance voluntary rather than mandatory. Remember, some individuals are uncomfortable at in these types of situations.
  • Manage the party and the alcohol: Designate people to be responsible for making sure everyone is behaving appropriately. It still is a work event.
  • Don’t encourage employees to drink too much alcohol, i.e., no “beer-drinking” contests.
  • Put a limit on the amount of alcohol served at one or two drinks per guest.
  • Advise the bartender not to serve anyone who appears to have had too much to drink.
  • Stop serving alcohol at least two hours before the party ends.
  • Offer free cab rides home.
  • Skip the mistletoe. It can lead to unwanted kissing or touching.
  • Discourage “after parties.”

Protecting your company from an “office party gone wrong”

We have handled numerous lawsuits at our offices where an employee who is alleging sexual harassment references one or more incidents that occurred during a company-sponsored holiday party in support of a claim. It’s also common for employees who are alleging a hostile work environment to cite events that occurred at the party or at the after-party not necessarily sponsored by the company as evidence of a hostile work environment.

There are risks with serving unlimited alcohol at company parties, and it’s in the best interest of employers to protect themselves from the legal consequences that could arise from a party gone wrong.

Look for new, healthy ways to celebrate this season; socialize with one another without the old tradition of loosening up with large amounts of alcohol.

Patricia F. Weisberg is a partner at Walter & Haverfield, a Cleveland law firm. She assists employers with their obligations under state and federal employment discrimination laws, FLSA, ADA, FMLA, affirmative action, equal opportunity, unemployment, workers' compensation, non-compete agreements and other laws regulating the employment relationship in an effort to minimize potential employment-related litigation. She can be reached at 216-978-2928, or at pweisberg@walterhav.com .

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