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Avoiding Holiday Lawsuits

How to protect your company so the partying doesn't get out of hand

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Holiday parties are the perfect way to bring employees together in a relaxed atmosphere and reward them for working hard. But what happens if the holiday cheer gets out of hand? You never know when one person's trip to the mistletoe might mean another person's trip to a lawyer. Special events such as holiday parties can become a breeding ground for sexual harassment and other forms of inappropriate behavior, especially if alcohol is involved. So what can you do to avoid the problems? Elizabeth D. Moore, a partner with the law firm Nixon Peabody who specializes in employment counseling and preventing lawsuits, offers the following tips to help you avoid holiday lawsuits.

Double-check the legalities of your company's sexual harassment policy. "Sometimes employees don't realize that a company-sponsored event is covered by the company's harassment policy," Moore says. Anytime a company pays for an event, whether it's on site or off, it's considered a company-sponsored event. This includes lunches, cocktail hours and other forms of entertainment that can be paid for with the company credit card. But beware, Moore warns, because even if the company isn't covering the expenses, the event can still fall under the umbrella of scrutiny if business is being discussed. Make sure your policy clearly defines harassment behavior and covers any outside events.

Make sure the policy covers employee injuries. This is especially true if employees are required to attend. Employers are responsible for any injuries that occur at a company-sponsored event.

Assign someone to be responsible for monitoring inappropriate behavior. A manager or other responsible employee can watch for signs of inappropriate behavior and prevent uncomfortable situations before they happen or before they get out of control. Having an appointed person can also take the pressure away from other employees who may not want to get involved in a sticky situation.

Extend the employee party to include spouses and children. "It's the easiest way to avoid issues," says Moore. "Employees will generally behave in front of their children." Changing an event from a drinking and partying atmosphere to a family-oriented one creates an environment where inappropriate behavior rarely occurs.

Limit alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption clearly gives rise to all kinds of incidences, says Moore. Here are several ways to prevent over-intoxication:

  • Serve beer over hard alcohol whenever possible.
  • Provide drink tickets to limit employees to a maximum number of three alcoholic beverages.
  • Have professionals serve the alcohol. Companies often make the mistake of offering self-service bars or allowing employees to serve drinks. Professional bartenders not only carry insurance, but they're trained to know when to cut somebody off, isolating your company from any liability.

Provide a car service to ensure all employees get home safely. Anything that happens to an employee between the time they leave your event until they reach home can create liability for you. Provide a car service regardless of what an employee has consumed so that everyone is comfortable using it.

If throwing a holiday party gives you visions of sugar plum fairies and lawsuits dancing in your head, there are other ways to reward your employees without looking like a Grinch. Moore suggests giving employees a half-day of shopping instead of a party, something that's becoming increasingly popular with companies. Whatever you decide to do, taking preventive measures will ensure that your employees, and your company, will have a safe and happy holiday season.

Sarah Pierce is a freelance writer living in Southern California.