The #MeToo movement is having a dramatic impact on the workplace as evidenced by a recent study published at the beginning of November. That survey, published by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., reported that only 65% of the businesses participating in the survey planned to hold a holiday party. This is the lowest percentage since the recession in 2009. While the companies reported having more confidence in the economy, the survey authors reported that approximately 33% of the respondents had concerns about the potential consequences of misconduct occurring during office holiday celebrations, and that the #MeToo movement had sensitized them to these concerns.
*Chart from Bloomberglaw.com
Of those companies hosting parties, 48.5% of them will serve alcohol and 39.4% of those parties will be held on company premises. With the concerns regarding liability both for potential injuries and for sexual harassment claims, companies should understand the risks and rewards of hosting company holiday parties.
Hosting a holiday party provides an organization with a convenient opportunity to recognize employee accomplishments and to promote team bonding, but companies should be intentional with their activities and understand the potential liabilities that may arise from the holiday party.
Are you requiring employees to attend the holiday party? If so, the organization will need to pay hourly employees for the time they attend the party. Also, if you are requiring an employee to attend the party and he or she is injured at the party or as a consequence of the party, you likely will face a worker’s compensation claim.
Alcohol or Not?
Alcohol and off-site gatherings are a bad combination. Employees inclined to misbehave, but who otherwise enough self-control to stay out of trouble, often lose their inhibitions in these settings, and trouble often follows. In such settings, telling a joke that was “funny” on the golf course seems like a good idea, or the imaginary signals of interest one picks up from a coworker seem more real. Also, an overserved employee may not misbehave, but become the talk of the office in the days, weeks or months that follow, a needless embarrassment for someone who may otherwise and at all times have acted professionally.
Company provided alcohol presents its own set of risks. Alcohol consumption increases the likelihood of alcohol-related accidents and injuries, not just to the employees but to third-parties as well. Like any other function, social host liability may attach to over-serving alcohol. In addition, the connection alcohol consumption and inappropriate giving rise sexual harassment claims is well-known and cannot be over-emphasized. As a best practice, companies should not serve alcohol at company sponsored events. However, if the decision is made to do so, there are certain common-sense precautions, what can be taken to reduce the risk of injury, offensive behavior and potential liability.
A company can designate a spotter to gently and subtly take action to ensure people do not consume too much alcohol or who may interrupt conversations involving individuals who appear to be acting “too friendly” with coworkers in a manner that could give rise to a sexual harassment claim. Additionally, a company can work with one of the various ride-share companies to offer employees a code to use for a safe ride home.
For off-site parties, the organizer can instruct the bartenders to refuse service to anyone who appears visibly intoxicated. Instead of having an open bar or host bar, a company can provide drink tickets to limit the number of company-provided drinks for employees. While a company can restrict the type of alcoholic beverages served as well opting for beer or wine instead of hard liquor. And you know the answer when it comes to serving martinis, manhattans and shots.
Setting the Tone
Prior to the holiday party, company leadership can set the tone for the party by communicating with employees regarding the expectations for respectful behavior at the party. While it may seem childish, it is important for leadership to clearly communicate the expectations for the party. And it works, for the most part. Respect is the key phrase and will resonate with all but the most boorish in the workforce. The communication can include ground rules regarding acceptable behavior and consequences for violating the rules. It will be important to ensure leadership behavior is consistent with the expectations they set for employees. It will also be important to have designated individuals at the party to enforce the rules and expectations set forth in advance to help mitigate potential issues.
Bill Egan is a Seasoned Employment Law Attorney backed by over 33 years of proven, veteran experience. He specializes in navigating businesses through conflict resolution in the workplace.
Rachell Henning is a third-year student at Mitchell Hamline School of Law's innovative Hybrid program. Rachell is an Avisen Fellow who enjoys spending time with her husband and two young daughters when she is not working or studying.