Employers Beware: Holiday Work Party Risks and Recommendations

  During the holiday season many employers want to show appreciation to their staff by hosting holiday parties and events.  Employers need to keep in mind there are precautions to take when holding a holiday party or special occasion. 

  When employers plan a holiday get together, the first thing they need to consider is whether this will be mandatory for employees.  If an employee is injured at a recreational activity, such as a party, he or she is covered by New Jersey Workers’ Compensation if the employer required the employee to participate in an activity that ordinarily would be considered recreational or social in nature.  In that case, the Supreme Court of New Jersey has held that the employer renders that activity a work-related task as a matter of law.  It should be noted that if the employer requires the employee to attend (indirect or implicit) this creates an employment situation.  Given that ruling, it is better for employers to make attendance at a holiday event voluntary.  Also, it is important to note that employees out on leave should not be attending office parties or events.

  Therefore, when planning your party the manner in which you extend the invitation will affect whether this becomes a work related activity under the definition of New Jersey Workers Compensation purposes.   You should consider the time, place and activities at the event when determining if you want this to be mandatory.  Certain situations, such as a football game or skating party, may give rise to a greater likelihood of injury.  

  When sending the invitation, make clear this is a “Holiday Party” or some similar term. Keep religion out of the party title. Don’t identify one religion over another, even if 95 percent of the employees celebrate a holiday. If you identify one religion over another, you could offend employees who practice a different religion or none at all.  By naming the party something generic, you are making the party more inclusive to all employees.

  To serve or not to serve alcohol is always a question, especially for an evening event.  While many employers want to provide alcohol at a holiday office gathering, they could be placing themselves at risk for liability caused by an intoxicated employee.  Not having alcohol or limiting consumption is generally the best policy to avoid problems.  If you provide drink tickets it may limit the amount an employee would consume.  If you hire a professional bartender, he or she can prevent underage drinking and determine when someone has had too much to drink.  You could also consider arranging for designated drivers, cab vouchers, or hotel accommodations. 

  If you have an employee that is visibly intoxicated, you should take steps to make certain that the employee can get safely home and not pose a threat to others.  With an intoxicated employee, you also run the risk that the employee may be inappropriate with another employee or guest.  If you do not want to serve alcohol, a lunch time celebration may be the best choice for a dry event.  You could also host the event on a weekday as many employees are less likely to consume alcohol when they have work the following day.  For employees, it is just as important to remember that while alcohol may be served you should always drink responsibly because your behavior will impact your co-workers perception of you.

  The location of the event should be a place that is work appropriate.  Somewhere that would foster a relaxed environment for employees to enjoy, but not feel uncomfortable.  Many employers want to have the office party on-site, but having an event outside of the office can shift responsibility to that establishment.   As mentioned above, if you have the event outside of the office and there is an injury, the responsibility would shift to the establishment.  Additionally, seasoned bartenders can help prevent intoxication and provide a neutral party to monitor consumption and cut off alcohol when necessary.

  It is important to remember this is still a work event.  Employers and employees should dress appropriately.  Employers should already have employee handbooks that have been provided to all employees discussing items such as harassment, retaliation and workplace violence.   

  You should also make employees aware that if they participate in inappropriate behavior, they will be asked to leave the event immediately.  Employers should have a plan to handle intoxicated employees, complaints or inappropriate behavior. 

  Employees and employers also need to keep in mind we live in a social media world.  Remind employees that bad choices could be permanently recorded on social media and you want all employees to represent the company in a positive manner.  It is also not a bad idea to send out a memo asking that employees respect the privacy of other employees and guests and not take or post anyone’s photo without the person’s permission.  

  While employers cannot eliminate all liability, if you consider the above information and take precautions you can make the event an enjoyable way to show appreciation to your hardworking employees.  

 

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Jennifer G. Laver (Pictured) is a Partner in the Employment and Workers’ Compensation Groups at Weber Gallagher, in the firm’s Mount Laurel office.  She may be reached at jlaver@wglaw.com.