Case study: holiday parties

Nov. 1, 2003
Last year, we had a party to celebrate the holidays. We invited our staff and their spouses, some referring dentists, and a number of other people with whom we do business.

Bent Ericksen and Tim Twigg

Last year, we had a party to celebrate the holidays. We invited our staff and their spouses, some referring dentists, and a number of other people with whom we do business. I thought we all had a good time. The next day, my employee claimed she had been sexually harassed, and she is holding me responsible. I investigated the allegations and took appropriate action based on my personnel policies. How should I prevent something like this from happening in the future?

Considerations

Office parties can bolster morale, enhance work relationships, and promote cooperation at all levels of the practice. They commonly will take the form of a small, informal party for staff only. Service or attendance awards usually are presented at a more formal gathering where families and outside guests are invited. Parties can take place at the office or at another location outside work hours. While they have positive aspects, parties also carry significant risk, which is why office parties are becoming less common. Potential liability problems are part of that risk. Many employers who still have parties are eliminating alcoholic beverages and limiting participation to employees.

Employers who plan to serve or allow any alcoholic beverages to be brought to the party could be held liable for any harm caused by an employee who becomes intoxicated during the festivities. Potential liability can be reduced, however, by taking measures to control drinking and protect intoxicated employees and their co-workers.

Employers also need to recognize that if staff members participate in either planning the party or acting as helper-hosts during the party, and it is held outside normal work hours, the time may have to be paid time. On the other hand, if staff members are volunteering their time, they need not be paid.

Solutions

Here are some precautionary holiday party "do's and don'ts" to reduce health risks and liability:

1) The most effective way to decrease your potential liability is to not allow alcohol to be served at the party. As noted above, alcohol adversely affects judgment and inhibitions.
2) Avoid religious descriptions or decorations that could lead to related allegations of discrimination.
3) Inform employees that attendance is completely voluntary and free from any express or implied pressure from management. By doing this, any mishaps that occur during the event cannot be considered as having taken place within the scope of any work assignment.
4) Remind employees that unless they are performing assigned duties, they are attending voluntarily and will not be paid for the time.
5) Remind employees of their responsibilities under the office alcohol and substance-abuse policy that extends to office-sponsored, off-site events.
6) Remind employees that normal workplace standards of conduct, including your sexual harassment policy, apply to any celebration.
7) Establish consumption limits and strictly enforce them. To this end, it is helpful to hire professional bartenders for any employer-sponsored parties.
8) Do not allow intoxicated employees to drive. Choose someone to act as the designated driver, or offer to pay the taxi fare for employees who have been drinking and should not drive.
9) Have information handy regarding cab services, trains, or other convenient public transportation.
10)If a function is held at a hotel, reserve a few rooms for intoxicated employees who might need them later.

Remember: this is an employer-sponsored event. Any social setting may reduce inhibitions and relax a sense of professional behavior. It is with some trepidation that we touch on this subject at a time that should be full of holiday cheer. Unfortunately, in today's litigious climate, employers need to take certain precautions to avoid any embarrassing — or possibly very costly — consequences.

Our intention is to help minimize your potential liability for a sexual-harassment allegation, workers' compensation claims, or other liability that may arise from caution not being exercised. However, if our advice has not completely dampened your enthusiasm for a party, may the true meaning of the holiday season be with you.

Bent Ericksen is the founder and Tim Twigg is the president of Bent Ericksen and Associates. For over 25 years, the company has been a leading authority in human resources and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with the ever-changing and complex labor laws. Both authors are members of the Academy of Dental Management Consultants. To receive a complimentary copy of the company's quarterly newsletter or to learn more, contact them at (800) 679-2760 or at www.bentericksen.com.

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