It’s the holiday season! Time for family gatherings and other festive events. Some companies may be planning on throwing a holiday party for their employees this year. An office party is a great opportunity to relax and mingle with coworkers. But these parties can also become a legal liability for business owners.

Potential Liability

While state laws can differ on liability, employers should be aware that, in general, they may be held legally responsible for any incidents that happen at their company-sponsored holiday party. This is true, whether the party happens at their workplace or a different venue. The holiday party is an extension of the workplace, and therefore, an employer is responsible for the actions of their employees. If an incident does occur and an employee files a lawsuit, it’s common for both the employer and the party venue to be named in that case.

In Georgia, specifically, employers may be liable for employees who are negligent or commit an intentional act. They can be liable for an employee’s act of discrimination or harassment. Not only are they legally responsible, but inappropriate employee behavior can also bring embarrassment and negative attention to the company.

Issues to Consider

When a business or employer is organizing a holiday party for their employees, there are several issues to consider. Employers should pay special consideration to attendance, alcohol, harassment, and transportation.

Attendance. If an employer requires their employees to attend a holiday party, this can actually raise their liability if something goes wrong or someone is injured. Also, if the party is mandatory, employees may ask to be paid for however long they spend at the party. Instead, holiday parties should be optional to attend.

Alcohol. If an employer serves alcohol at their company holiday party, this can lead to significant legal liability. When someone consumes alcohol, it lowers inhibitions and affects good judgment, and this can lead to inappropriate or even dangerous behavior. Over-consumption can lead to anything from harassment to drunk driving. If an employer chooses to serve alcohol at the party, it should be limited and monitored.

Harassment. An office holiday party is an extension of the workplace. Company and HR policies are still in effect, even if the party isn’t taking place at the office. Some employees may use the gathering as an excuse to let loose or over-indulge, and this can lead to inappropriate conduct, such as harassment. Employers may be responsible for any inappropriate conduct, so it’s a good idea to remind employers about HR policies and guidelines, and to ask company executives to lead by example.

Transportation. Even if the company holiday party is held offsite, the employer may be liable for any injuries sustained as a result of the party. This especially includes DUIs or alcohol-related injuries. One way to minimize risks is for employers to arrange alternative transportation for employees. Or, employers can ask the party guests to drive responsibly and/or make special transportation plans.

Tips for Holiday Party Hosts

  • Make sure that the holiday party is optional and not mandatory.
  • Suggest a dress code. This will help keep things professional, and guests will be less likely to wear inappropriate or offensive items.
  • Consider inviting the employee and their family. Having a spouse, partner, or children around can mitigate any bad behavior.
  • If you provide alcoholic drinks, consider using a voucher or ticket system to limit the number of drinks served.
  • If you’re planning to serve alcohol to guests, be sure to also serve food.
  • Hire professional bartenders. They’re trained to identify and handle intoxicated guests.
  • Encourage management to lead by example in behavior, alcohol consumption, etc.
  • Have a set, specific time for when the holiday party officially ends.
  • Arrange for alternative transportation (ex: uber, shuttles, taxis, driver service), and encourage employees to make special transportation arrangements before the holiday party.

Have Additional Questions? Contact Brian M. Douglas & Associates

A work party is a great opportunity to boost employee morale and bring a little holiday cheer. But these opportunities to let loose also come with legal concerns and potential liability for business owners. If you have any questions about holiday party liability or related real estate laws, please reach out to us at (770) 933-9009 or contact us online.