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Office Holiday Parties: Avoiding the Naughty List

December 15, 2016 Employment Law Labor & Employment Blog

If you have not yet seen the movie Office Christmas Party, watch the trailer and you will see a perfect example of what not to do at your annual office holiday party. The Mad Men days of the secretary sitting on Santa’s lap (the boss’s lap) while both are drinking a dry martini SHOULD be a vestige of the past. Most employers and employees now recognize that in today’s world there is a different expectation as to how to behave appropriately at work then there was in say the 1950s or 1960s. However, social norms that are generally recognized in the workplace sometimes are forgotten when there is a party, especially a party with libations. A holiday office party can embolden inappropriate behavior from simple innuendos to unwelcome touching. The office holiday party can be a quagmire of potential employment issues, even beyond sexual harassment, including but not limited to, worker’s compensation, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and religion.

As this holiday season heads into full throttle, it is important for employers to consider the potential risks associated with any planned celebration. 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) that is monitoring 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 that 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 that 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.

Jennifer Fowler-Hermes