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Fewer U.S. companies celebrate with holiday parties

December 13, 2018

By Kristen Cifolelli, courtesy SBAM Approved Partner ASE

While the holidays are a wonderful time of the year to let down your hair, blow off some steam, and boost morale within the office, employers must be cautious about legal liability that can result from sexual harassment complaints, drunken driving accidents, and property damage arising out of a holiday party.  According to a recent survey released by consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., fewer U.S. companies are celebrating with holiday parties this year with only 65% of companies indicating they are holding a holiday celebration this year.  This is the lowest percentage since 2009.

According to Andrew Challenger, Vice President of the firm, “The number could be due to several factors, including potential liability following the #MeToo movement. HR departments nationwide are responding to this particular issue.”  Economic conditions aren’t part of the equation, according to Challenger. “Companies are sitting on tax savings and generally report a thriving economy,” he said.  Another reason for the drop in holiday events, the study shows, is a rise in employees that work remotely, which can make the logistics of a gathering more difficult.

With some appropriate planning though, employers can prevent some of the liability so that HR professionals can actually enjoy the festivities instead of worrying about the fallout.  In preparing for the holiday season, here are some tips to minimize risk to the organization:

  • Employer policies should be reviewed to ensure that rules regarding appropriate conduct include references to behavior at employer sponsored functions whether they are on-site, off-site, during, or after regular working hours.  These policies should be distributed to employees prior to any parties to reinforce expectations regarding appropriate behavior.

  • Employees should be aware that harassment policies also extend to a holiday event.  Not only should employers be wary of offensive comments or touching, but also of inappropriate gift giving that may happen during company gift exchanges. 

  • If alcohol is served, use a bartender in order to monitor consumption and try to limit the amount of drinks per person.  Food should be served at the event to slow the absorption of alcohol.  The function should held at a venue where drinking is not the sole activity of the event.  Managers should be designated to be on the lookout for excessive drinking or other inappropriate behavior.  Alternate transportation should be made available and well publicized in case an employee does drink too much.  

  • Set clearly defined start and end times for the function and close the bar at least an hour before the event ends.  Stress that the employer responsibility ceases at the end of the party and anyone who continues the evening beyond that point is responsible for themselves and is not authorized by the employer.  Managers should be aware that under no circumstances should they be buying alcohol for employees once the function is officially over.  Their actions will be considered an extension of the employer and will open the organization to liability for any incidents that may happen later in evening, even if the activity was not sponsored or approved.

  • Purchase a liability umbrella policy.  No matter what an employer may do, actions of others cannot be predicted or controlled, and liability can never be completely avoided.  

Taking these steps should help to create a safer event, but should any allegations of inappropriate behavior arise, employers need to ensure they follow their own policies and investigate any potential misconduct, even if it seems like a minor issue.   These incidents should be treated no differently than if it happened in the office.

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