Throw a company party with less risk of liability

December 6, 2017

You volunteered to lead the planning committee for the company’s upcoming holiday party, thinking it would be a great way to demonstrate your fabulous project management skills to the senior management team.

The committee has been working diligently on preparations for the event for several months now, and everything has been running smoothly. You were finally starting to breathe a sigh of relief (and look forward to the event), until you started to hear office party horror stories about past events.

The two employees who got into a drunken fist fight in the men’s bathroom.

The employee who threw up in a potted plant just outside the hotel ballroom and then almost fell down a flight of stairs.

The drunken dirty dancing, with someone’s bra being thrown in the air across the dance floor.

Now you’re having second thoughts about the open bar. You’re also wondering about liability to the company if anything bad happens.

Short of not serving alcohol at the event, there are ways you can plan ahead to reduce potential issues and liability. Here’s how.

Set expectations. The easiest way to reduce liability is to simply not serve alcohol at the event, but since that may not be realistic given senior leaders’ expectations, one option is to serve only beer and wine, not hard liquor. Either way, be sure to offer lots of non-alcoholic options.

If alcohol will be served, employment lawyer Stephanie R. Lakinski, with Karr Tuttle Campbell, recommends employers communicate in advance that the party is optional and hold it offsite and outside of normal business hours. “Washington has a regulation that prohibits alcohol in the workplace, so the company should not conduct business at the party, and should not pay employees for attending.”

Cap the length of time. The longer the event, the more alcohol that will be consumed. To avoid over-consumption, schedule the event for a specific period, such as 6-9pm, and then stop serving alcohol at least 30 minutes before the end of the event.

Serve heavy appetizers (or dinner). Alcohol on an empty stomach can increase the chances of inappropriate drunken behavior. “Offering a substantive meal or heavy appetizers can mitigate the effects of consuming too much alcohol,” advises Lakinski.

Hire professional bartenders. “Employers can also reduce liability by using third-party vendors to serve employees and cut them off if they are impaired,” Lakinski added.

Designate “safety” managers. Ask several company managers to ensure employees don’t leave the holiday party impaired or get behind the wheel of a vehicle.

Have rides available, if needed. Find out if your company will reimburse employees for using taxis or a ride-sharing service to get home safely. “The biggest liability issue employers face from holiday parties is undoubtedly related to alcohol consumption,” says Lakinski. “If an employee consumes alcohol at a company event and injures someone while impaired, the injured party may be able to claim that the employer is liable.”

It’s always better for employers to spend a few dollars to get someone safely home, than to deal with the potentially negative consequences of someone driving while intoxicated. Cheers to a safe and fun-filled holiday office party!

~ Lisa Quast

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