Legal Hangovers After The Holiday Party

Every January, after the holiday season, I receive at least a half-dozen calls from clients whose employees have raised, formally and informally, complaints about conduct occurring during the holiday party. Can all risks be avoided? Of course not. But the legal and employee relations risks can be minimized if you follow these 7 recommendations:

1. Call it a holiday party rather than a Christmas party. Not everyone celebrates Christmas. But it is okay to mention “Christmas” in the invitation. Please don’t exclude Christmas (says the Jewish guy). Just include other holidays, too, such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. As always it’s about inclusion not exclusion.

2. The same is true with decorations, if you have them. A beautiful Christmas tree is well…beautiful. But also include, for example, a menorah and a Kwanzaa basket. And, yes, size matters. A munchkin menorah next to a 12-foot tree may send the wrong message. By the way, invite employees to make suggestions for decorations so that you can reflect holidays you may not have thought of, such as the Buddhist holiday of Bodhi Day.

3. Remind employees in advance of the party that they should act responsibly and that the anti-harassment policy applies to the party. Managers should not only be models of appropriate behavior but also look out for inappropriate behavior, such as twerking, and respond proactively. The Chief Twerk Officer should be removed from where he or she can cause harm. And, remember, you cannot blame it on Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam. Those poor guys get blamed for everything.

4. Limit the alcohol consumption. For example, don’t have self-service. Have non-alcoholic beverages. Serve plenty of food. Have cab vouchers for those who cannot drive safely. The only way to avoid any risk is to avoid the alcohol, but you can minimize the risk by careful planning.

5. More on alcohol—make clear minors cannot drink and adults cannot buy drinks for minors. And make clear that if anyone breaks this rule the consequences will be severe.

6. Be clear attendance is optional. You can be welcoming without suggesting that employees should attend. Why? If you effectively require attendance by strong encouragement, the time may be considered working time. You don’t want to start the new year with a wage-and-hour claim.

7. No after parties. Many lawyers have summer homes because of bad behavior at after parties. Make clear the company neither sponsors them and no company funds can be used at them.

What should you do? Thank those who did good work with and for you. Meet people you have not yet met. This is a great opportunity for social engagement that will help increase overall engagement.

Let me close by saying: If you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Bodhi Day, I wish you a peaceful and meaningful holiday that corresponds with your faith. If you celebrate another holiday, I apologize for not referencing it by name, but I wish you a peaceful and meaningful holiday, too. If you celebrate no holidays or a holiday at another time of year, I wish you well just the same.

This blog should not be construed as legal advice or pertain to specific factual situations.

About the Author: Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris LLP in the Employment, Labor, Benefits and Immigration Practice Group.

photo credit: Lisa Brewster via photopin cc