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Avoiding the naughty list: office party suggestions for nice employers

November 28th, 2011  |  Lorene Park

Tis the season when many thoughtful employers show their holiday spirit by throwing a party for employees. There are many benefits to such events, from showing employees appreciation for hard work to fostering team spirit and boosting morale. However, even the most well-meaning company can make the naughty list if it does not work to avoid some of the problems inherent in such festivities. Some of the issues that should be considered include:

  1. Invitations: Think twice before inviting only some employees and not others to the holiday party – for example, the failure to invite women residents to a party celebrating a hospital’s new residents supported a gender discrimination claim (Tuli v Brigham & Women’s Hosp). By contrast, another federal district court recently stated that being excluded from a holiday party was too trivial of an action to support an employee’s retaliation claim (Mahoney v Donovan).
  2. Attendance: Do not make holiday party attendance mandatory – particularly if the party has a religious theme. Several states have laws that allow workers to opt out of meetings where employers communicate their views on religion. In addition, requiring attendance at a party with a religious theme could be seen as discriminatory against employees who practice other religions.
  3. Flirting: Caution employees and managers to act professionally. Sexual harassment suits often include allegations of sexually suggestive or offensive comments made at office parties (e.g., Spikes v La State Univ). Although stray comments made at holiday parties are unlikely, by themselves, to support a hostile work environment claim; such comments will be taken into consideration along with other evidence.
  4. Santa’s lap: Similarly, if you are going to have a Santa Claus at your holiday party, think twice before having employees sit on his lap. In one recent California Court of Appeals case, an employee alleged that having women sit on the lap of a manager dressed as Santa Claus was part of a sex-based hostile work environment. The jury bought that claim, although the court later rejected it since the employee herself was not asked to sit on his lap (Brennan v Townsend).
  5. Alcohol: If you serve alcohol, consider limiting consumption by, among other things, having a cash bar rather than an open bar and offering beer and wine instead of liquor with higher alcohol content. Avoiding overindulgence by employees will not only help avoid inappropriate behaviors or comments that could later support harassment claims; but it could also avoid liability for drunk driving. Some states have laws that hold social hosts liable for accidents caused by drunken guests if the host continued to serve alcohol to someone appearing intoxicated and likely to drive home. In addition, employers could be held liable for injuries caused by an employee’s drunken negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior if attending the party was considered part of the job.
  6. Extravagance: If you are terminating employees around the holidays for the stated reason that the company has to cut back on expenses, consider cutting back on what you spend on the holiday party as well. Some plaintiffs have argued that the extravagance of a holiday party coming on the heels of a termination or RIF was evidence that the employer’s stated reason for the RIF – financial difficulties – was pretext for discrimination.

Last but not least, let employees know that most of the employer’s expectations concerning appropriate conduct in the office also apply at office parties, notwithstanding the merriment. Just in case, it might also be a good idea to avoid hanging mistletoe.

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