Many employers consider a company-wide holiday celebration an excellent opportunity for employees to mingle socially and get to know one another better. It’s also a chance for senior management to interact with employees they rarely see throughout the year. Though holiday parties can create a positive work environment, increase employee morale and promote teamwork, they can also expose employers to a number of potentially significant risks.

Perhaps the most significant risks involve alcohol. What happens if an employee becomes intoxicated and causes damage to something or someone? Though liability is determined on a case-by-case basis, employers may face a greater chance of being held responsible if:

  • Attendance is, or is perceived to be, mandatory (e.g., everybody knows that being seen by the Vice President will enhance one’s chances of a promotion);
  • The employer pays for or provides the alcohol; or
  • The employer conducts business during the holiday party.

Employers can take steps to reduce their potential liability, such as:

  • Collect car keys from all who drink. Toward the close of the party, assign designated drivers or call taxis for anyone who is too impaired to drive. If the party is in a hotel, reserve a block of rooms for the inebriated to spend the night.
  • Appoint someone in a position of authority to monitor alcohol consumption; including making certain that no alcohol is served to minors.
  • Serve a limited amount of alcohol, controlled through “drink coupons.” (i.e., two drinks per person). Close the bar once dinner begins.
  • Send a memo to all employees prior to the party stating clearly that a) employees who arrive inebriated will not be allowed in; b) employees cannot bring their own alcohol; c) excessive drinking will not be tolerated; and d) intoxication and inappropriate behavior at the party will be grounds for discipline.
  • Do not permit supervisors or managers to buy alcoholic beverages for employees.
  • Hold the party at an off-site location and use professional bartenders to serve and monitor alcohol consumption.

There are other risks employers should consider when planning and holding the annual office holiday party, such as:

Discrimination and Harassment: Lines are often blurred during an office party, so they are often crossed. Conduct that is inappropriate at work may be considered appropriate at a party, such as engaging in intimate conversations or acts, giving a racy gift or telling an off-color joke. Employers may be held liable for unlawful harassment or discrimination that takes place during a holiday party, even if it’s off-premises and off-the-clock. Consider redistribution of the sexual harassment policy, and remind employees that a holiday party is no excuse for inappropriate behavior, which will not be tolerated.

Premises Liability: Employees are often allowed to bring spouses and significant others to the office holiday party. Every ‘plus one’ accompanied by an employee is a potential slip-and-fall victim. Employers must make sure the workplace is safe before the party and keep it safe during the party.

Workers’ Compensation: Employees are typically covered by workers’ compensation if they are injured in the course and scope of their employment. Though getting hurt at a holiday party wouldn’t seem to be work-related, an employee may be covered by workers’ compensation if attendance at the party is explicitly or implicitly required (or ‘encouraged’). Tell employees the holiday party is purely a voluntary social event, and mean it.

Employers should review their insurance policies before the party to make sure they are covered in the event something happens during the holiday party. General liability, employment practices liability and workers’ compensation insurance may cover some of the risks created by the office holiday party. However, other risks may require additional insurance coverage, such as a policy that covers one-time events, including alcohol-related liability, which may be available for a small additional premium.

If you would like more information about how Setnor Byer Insurance & Risk can help protect your business during the holidays and year round, please contact us.