In a court opinion from Place v. Abbott Laboratories in 2000, the Seventh Circuit Court stated that “[a]t the risk of playing the Grinch . . . office Christmas parties also seem fertile ground for unwanted sexual overtures.” With the holiday season at hand, and the office holiday parties that follow, it is important to be mindful of possible legal liabilities arising out of company-sponsored events.
Keep these 12 best practices in mind when planning a holiday office party.
Holiday Decorations in the Office
Overall, it is important not to appear to support one religion over another.
1. An employer cannot treat persons of different religions differently, and this also applies to holiday decorations.
2. If a company is to limit the amount or type of decorations, it must be applied evenly to all individuals.
3. The EEOC has stated that trees and wreaths are secular symbols, and companies can display trees or hang non-religious wreaths around the office or building even if an individual objects to them.
4. Avoid playing religious holiday music or using religious holiday terms. For example, refer to it as a “holiday party” rather than a “Christmas Party.”
Alcohol, Minors and Insurance
5. If alcohol is served, limit consumption by placing restrictions on the type served, the amount provided, or the time available.
6. Hire professional bartenders to watch out for excessive drinking and require identification for individuals who appear to be under the age of 21.
7. Provide food. It can also help slow the absorption of alcohol in the bloodstream.
8. Check to make sure your insurance policy covers your holiday party, as some policies exclude events during which alcohol is served.
Attendance, Harassment and Taxis Home
9. Ensure that holiday parties are voluntary. If a holiday party is mandatory, then you will need to pay non-exempt employees for the time spent there.
10. Consider highlighting the company’s sexual harassment policy. Yours should also be easily accessible and in writing.
11. Arrange for cabs or designated drivers. Support ride-sharing apps such as Uber or Lyft to make sure employees get home safely.
These practices will help protect your business – and your personnel. One final suggestion: let’s make this #12: promptly deal with any issues that arise. This will stop any continuing behavior problems and deter future inappropriate conduct.