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Serving the Holiday Punch: How to Throw an Office Party Without the Legal Hangover

We are rapidly heading into the holiday season, and businesses across the Mid-South are appointing the office party planning committee, ordering the spiral-sliced ham and deciding whether or not to allow significant others to join the festivities. While offices might spend a considerable amount of time and energy on choosing a venue, managers rarely take the time to set out a plan to avoid legal issues.
Despite our best intentions, efforts to combine co-workers after hours with social lubricants is fraught with legal peril. The venerable Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit stated “At the risk of playing the Grinch, we note that office parties also seem to be fertile ground for unwanted sexual overtures that lead to Title VII complaints.” (7th Cir. 2001). This admonition is not to say that you need to ban the office party or even the office party with alcohol. However, you need to be aware that the problems that tend to arise at these functions are not always as obvious as drunken advances on the new person. In order to stave off a legal headache, we recommend that you follow a few guidelines:
1. Plan your party in advance, and decide what type of event you want it to be. If feasible, consider a midday lunch party without alcohol. If the party is well understood as more akin to Animal House than afternoon tea, serve food, provide non-alcoholic beverages and hire certified bartenders who have been trained to recognize the overserved. Also, appoint sober managers as “chaperones” to help keep watch.

2. Choice of venue matters. While it might be less expensive to have the party in your office, there is potentially greater legal liability for any untoward antics or poorly calculated decisions. If you choose a place off-site, be mindful that your employees most likely have a diversity of social standards. Establishments that pride themselves on the physical attributes of their wait staff are probably best left alone.

3. Embrace the holidays. In most of our work environments, employees come from a range of religious traditions and cultural backgrounds. While you could make an effort to showcase each one of these traditions, it is probably easier to focus on the social aspects of the season.

4. Let employees know that attendance is voluntary. If you require attendance at the party, either expressly or implicitly, you need to pay the employees for their time.

5. No mistletoe and/or drinking games. Despite how well this may work out on TV, it’s best not to have anything that could be seen as encouraging physical contact or excessive drinking.

6. Provide a company-sponsored Uber or taxi account and encourage people to use it. We all know that drunk driving is a problem. If an employee ties one on at the office party and gets in an accident, there is the overwhelming possibility that you could be roped into a lawsuit. Simply providing employees with a guilt-free alternative can not only save lives, but also it can save a great deal of time and money with your attorneys.
The holiday office party can be great way to get into the spirit of the season. However, employers need to make sure they don’t do anything that encourages a painful start to the New Year.
Rob Ratton is an attorney at Fisher Phillips. Have questions about a legal or labor and employment matter and how it may affect your business? Contact Fisher Phillips at

Posted: 11/9/2016 7:30:00 AM | with 0 comments
Filed under: Business, Employment, Fisher, Holiday, Issues, Law, Legal, Party, Phillips, Small

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