Holiday Parties and Employer Liability

Emily J. Meister

For many North Carolina and South Carolina businesses, the annual holiday party provides a festive, valuable opportunity to express their gratitude, reward company loyalty, and bolster goodwill amongst employees and, potentially, key customers, clients, and vendors. But with such an opportunity also comes potential downfalls or opportunities for employers to incur unwanted or intended liability.    

So how can a wise employer capitalize on the positives of holiday gatherings without becoming a Scrooge? By focusing on how and where liability may arise and planning for your festivities just as thoughtfully and strategically as you would when handling other business opportunities. For example:

  1. Choose your location wisely. While it may be tempting to hold your party at the office (where you won’t get charged a rental fee), employers should strongly consider hosting their gatherings elsewhere, particularly if spouses, significant others or other guests will be invited. Sensitive information must be gathered and secured before outside guests should be invited in and, in the event that someone falls or is injured on your property, you can expect a claim to be made against you. By holding your gathering offsite, the risk of unknown hazards lies with the venue. Conversely, choosing a rowdy bar for your party is likely to encourage rowdy behavior. Think carefully about the atmosphere you want for your gathering and plan accordingly.
  2. Set expectations for conduct and attire. The easiest, least overbearing way to do this is through the invitation itself. However, prudent employers will also find opportunities or ways in advance of the party to tactfully remind employees that professional, proper behavior and attire for those that choose to attend, along with their guests if so allowed, is expected. Encourage management or senior employees to lead by example and to intercede before “offending” conduct escalates or gets out of hand.
  3. Limit alcohol consumption. This can be done in many ways, such as through drink tickets, limiting the selection of alcohol, limiting the time or duration for which it will be served, having available non-alcoholic options and food, etc. A wise employer, however, will hire and utilize professional bartenders who are trained in determining when an individual should be denied further service.
  4. Plan for the unexpected. Check your insurance policy to confirm or procure coverage for gatherings and offsite parties. Arrange for alternative transportation (such as Ubers or taxis) or even hotel accommodations for guests in need. 
  5. Address unacceptable conduct promptly. If offending conduct can be “reigned in” during the party before it continues or, worse, escalates, do so immediately and discreetly. But for more serious conduct (for example, sexual harassment), don’t count on “what happens at the holiday party staying at the holiday party” or write it off as simply being a byproduct of too much revelry. Rather, wise employers should again investigate, address and document inappropriate conduct (and the employer’s response thereto) per their normal policies and procedures following the party.

For assistance on this and other employment related issues, we hope that you will not hesitate to contact us and, as you plan your holiday gathering, the attorneys of Law Firm Carolinas wish you and your company happy holidays and much success! 

Corporate Law