A holiday party can be a good morale boost for your firm. But you do not want anyone to get hurt and you certainly do not want to get sued because of it. There are some steps you can take to minimize these risks.
Alcohol will be served at most of these celebrations and parties. There is nothing uncommon or unreasonable about service of alcohol at an employer-sponsored function. But apart from contributing to the occasional bad-karaoke-inspired self-flagellation, service of alcohol at these parties can open the sponsoring employer to potential liability. Although Washington law has a general rule of non-liability for a server of alcohol, there are several exceptions. An employer-sponsored party where alcohol is served is one such exception. A few practical preventative measures can alleviate the danger of liability.
Much of the advice regarding service of alcohol at employer-sponsored events rightly focuses on overservice and its relationship to driving. But another area of exposure is commonly overlooked: Workplace harassment. Inhibitions are lowered when libations are flowing. Even moderate intoxication can contribute to partygoers making unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate comments, or engaging in other behaviors that are inconsistent with maintaining a healthy and respectful work environment.
Several simple steps can reduce the likelihood of harassment or perceived harassment occurring during a holiday party:
- Circulate a memorandum to all employees establishing the expectations of behavior at the employer-sponsored event. This memo should include a reminder regarding harassment policies, dress code, and transportation options.
- Employers should remind employees before the party of their expectations and policies in place regarding workplace harassment.
- Employers should remind supervisors of these rules, and establish what procedures should be followed if any harassment is witnessed or reported.
- Do not deck the halls with mistletoe. This is pretty self-explanatory in a workplace environment.
- Finally, consider inviting spouses or even making the event a family affair. People are often better behaved when they are surrounded by their family members or significant others.
Drinking and Driving
Other areas of risk include liability for injuries caused by attendees driving while intoxicated, liability for property damage caused by intoxicated attendees, and liability for service of minors. The following is a practical list of some employer tips to ensure a fun and safe 2008 holiday party:
- DO – hire professional, licensed bartenders. Washington law requires that servers be trained to recognize intoxication, and that they take steps to avoid overservice. Similarly, a liquor license or banquet license may be necessary to comply with Washington law regarding alcohol service. Catering providers, bartending service companies, and legal service providers can all assist with this process.
- DO NOT – rely on “drink tickets” or any other substitute for direct observation regarding intoxication. While establishing built-in limits to alcohol consumption and service is good in theory, in practice these safeguards are easily circumvented.
- DO – have a clear policy and expectation in place with servers regarding when a person is to be “cut off.” Clearly intoxicated persons obviously should not be served. It is worth considering instituting a “last call” an hour or so before the scheduled end of the event. Any service policy that reduces the likelihood that employees will leave the employer-sponsored event in an intoxicated state is good.
- DO NOT – serve minors. If minors will be present at the party, make sure that servers are instructed to verify age before service.
- DO – provide round-trip taxi vouchers or other shuttle service. It is useful and wise for an employer to provide for taxi vouchers or other prepaid transportation options. It is best for those options to be round-trip. Many employees will drive to the event, and will need to return to pick up their vehicle in the morning. Making this process as easy as possible makes it more likely that a voucher will be used.
- DO – serve food and “soft” drinks. The risk of overservice can be reduced by providing attendees other options for consumption. This facilitates a “designated driver” program, especially if taxi vouchers or shuttle service prove to be a nonviable option.
In addition to instituting some or all of the above suggestions, remember that alcohol inhibits judgment. Intoxicated people make bad decisions. Someone in authority should stay sober to monitor, for example, whether people are using the taxi voucher when appropriate.
Libations need not equal liability. With a few simple steps, employers and employees can ensure that an employer-sponsored celebration is just another part of a safe and happy holiday season!
Originally published in the Puget Sound Business Journal, December 5, 2008