The Office Christmas Party and Legal Liability

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It is after hours and the annual company Holiday party is in full swing. It may be freezing outside, but it's heating up inside as you sip another glass of champagne and notice the cutie from marketing standing dangerously close to the mistletoe. What's the harm in offering to share your---ummm---merriment?

If you're a business owner, the answer is "plenty."

Such scenarios can be fraught with danger for employers. Not only are holiday parties subject to the normal "social host" laws that will hold them liable for drunken guests who create mayhem or worse, but they may also be facilitating sexual harassment.

It is traditional for business owners to invite employees to share a little holiday cheer each December. Certainly, parties can be a great way for companies to make employees feel appreciated and for people to relax, get to know each other and share the joys of the season. However, it is important to get familiar with the legal liabilities associated with hosting a business part---so that you can avoid potential problems and possibly, even lawsuits.

Alcohol Consumption

When you serve alcohol at a holiday party, you are taking responsibility for your guests' consumption. In many states, if a host serves more alcohol to a guest who is drunk, the host becomes liable if that guest then drives drunk and causes damage or injury. So, how can you limit the danger to your business when you are serving drinks?

Hire bartenders: Even if you have an open bar, it is better to have someone such as a bartender dispensing the alcoholic drinks. Instruct bartenders as to when to limit alcoholic service. That way, gatekeepers limit the access to the alcohol and can prevent inebriated people from further imbibing.

Serve food: Make sure there are plenty of things to eat so that people are not drinking on empty stomachs; avoid having too many salty foods since these encourage people to drink more.

Have plentiful soft drinks: Provide sodas, sparkling juices, bottled water and lots of other appealing "soft" drink options.

Hand out drink tickets: Give all attendees a limited number of tickets for the open bar; once the tickets are gone, they can purchase their own drinks (reducing your liability) or drink the plentiful soft options.

Skip the alcohol altogether: Have an earlier holiday gathering such as a lunch banquet and do not serve alcohol.

Offer shuttles or taxis: Make it easy for employees to and from the party without driving.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can come in many forms and the holiday party can provide a perfect environment for most of them. By combining a relaxed, party atmosphere and alcohol, your holiday festivities can quickly erode inhibitions. What can you do to prevent sexual harassment occurrences at your winter shindig?

Remind everyone of the policies: Before the party, circulate a memo reminding people of your sexual harassment policies; let them know that the policies apply to events outside of the routine 9-5 environment. Remind supervisors of the rules and what to do if they witness or hear of potential harassment.

Have a dress code: Suggest a dress code for the party that keeps things professional. Avoiding provocative dress can alleviate some forms of harassment.

Host a family event: Instead of limiting your party attendees to employees, invite their spouses or families. Consider inviting clients or business partners, since the presence of other people may help keep the event appropriate.

Avoid some traditions: While mistletoe may be your favorite decoration of the season, it really doesn't belong in the office. Avoid anything that could contribute to an environment of harassment.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Party

It is possible to have a legally safe holiday party at your office as long as you take care of your potential liabilities. Besides, serving less alcohol might prevent them from getting yet another picture of your "Santa sings karaoke" act.