As employers begin conducting business in-person, many are considering whether to plan a traditional office holiday party. In addition to addressing COVID related concerns with persons gathering, employers should also keep in mind that office policies that are generally recognized in the workplace are sometimes forgotten when there is a party, especially a party with libations.
A holiday office party can embolden inappropriate behavior, from simple innuendoes to unwelcome touching, that could lead to claims of sexual harassment. The office holiday party can be a quagmire of potential employment issues, even beyond sexual harassment. These issues can include claims due to on-the-job injuries (worker’s compensation), unpaid wages for attending the party (the Fair Labor Standards Act), or other types of workplace harassment or discrimination (e.g., religion).
As you prepare for your office party, consider whether alcohol should be available, as most issues arise due to someone bending the elbow a bit too much. If you do decide to provide spirits, make sure you have someone (a designated responsible adult) who is watching to ensure that your workforce does not get too “relaxed” and cross the line. Possibly limit how much alcohol is served, and make sure any employee who drinks a little too much has a ride home. Evaluate in advance whether the party is going to be mandatory or not. If it’s voluntary and employees do not feel compelled to attend, then employers are not required to compensate employees for their attendance. Review the plans for the party in advance to see if there are any activities that could be considered inappropriate or offensive to members of any protected class. Finally, make sure employees understand that the company’s policies and procedures, especially those related to conduct, are still in effect at the party. Most parties are benign and conclude with no real issues to speak of, but you don’t want to be the exception to the rule. You do not want your CEO or VP added to the naughty list.