Every year around this time, the Ghost of Christmas Parties Past comes clanking down the hallway, dragging in its wake a chain of dread for employers and employees alike—drunken exploits, gag gifts gone wrong, ill-advised sexual overtures and the ever-present threat of bad dancing.
Yet, in spite of such legitimate fears and a perfectly Dickensian economy, most employers plan to hold a holiday party this year. And most of their fears will prove to be unfounded, particularly if the party is carefully planned.
In fact, by exerting proper control over the occasion, employers can reduce employees’ worries concerning the annual fete, as well as their own. Most important, careful planning will help your company avoid lawsuits as you ring in the New Year.
Company parties can be considered part of the scope of employment. The Montana Supreme Court recently considered the case of an employer that held a company picnic at his lakeside home. The picnic had been a favorite of employees, families and vendors for years.
For the 2005 picnic, the employer rented personal watercraft for his guests. He asked an employee to supervise the machines to make sure riders safely operated them. Unfortunately, despite the employer’s precautions, the employee supervising the activity crashed while riding and was permanently disabled.
The court ruled that the worker’s injuries occurred within the scope of his employment and applied workers’. The court noted that the employer planned and paid for the party, requested employees’ attendance, controlled and participated in the festivities, and benefited by enjoying improved employee morale.
How to comply
One strategy to minimize your liability for a party is to limit your control over it by taking steps such as having it off-site and making attendance voluntary. But an arm’s-length approach will not prevent the courts from holding you liable.
A better strategy is to do the opposite: Treat your party as an extension of the workplace. Apply the same strategies to the festivities that you use to head off legal problems at work.
One of the areas of liability arising from holiday parties involves alcohol consumption. In some cases, employers that serve alcohol at parties are treated as “social hosts” and are not held liable for accidents resulting from alcohol consumption. Still, with alcohol consumption, as with any employee behavior, the courts look favorably on companies that work in good faith to reduce hazards.