During this time of the year, I often have business clients ask what should and should not occur at work. Specifically, what should happen at work-sponsored social events to celebrate the Holidays and a successful end of the year.
These concerns have increased in light of recent news headlines where parties and out-of-work interactions have been a source of allegations of improper conduct and claims of harassment. I can understand a business leader’s concern. It is often a balancing act between a company wanting to reward their employees and increase morale, but (at the same time) avoiding a situation where actions may lead to issues at the workplace and liability to the business. Below are a few general suggestions that I provide to businesses sponsoring a work party or experience.
- Have the event away from the office: This is important for several reasons. First, it separates the event from the business where an owner would be fully responsible to monitor the event and prevent incidents. Second, it provides additional individuals outside of the business who would be responsible to monitor and make certain it is a safe environment. Third, it provides a justifiable reason if employees do not want to participate in the event.
- Alcohol consumption should be monitored: Alcohol consumption is another important reason why I recommend an event away from the office. If the event occurs at the business, and alcohol is served, the owners become solely responsible to monitor the consumption of alcohol by their employees and, in part, whether or not they are in a condition to drive home. This can lead to serious issues for the business if an alcohol-related incident happens either at their business or as their employees and/or their guests travel home. Holding the event at another location, with event personnel providing the alcohol and monitoring consumption (and cutting off those who have reached their limit) provides an added level of responsibility and protection to avoid a negative event.
- Limitation on alcohol consumption: The term “open bar” often brings out the worst in some people where, because it is free, they drink far in excess of what should occur. Although I understand businesses do not want to appear to be cheap to their employees in the food and alcohol that is to be provided, I often recommend a reasonable maximum alcohol drink limit. If no drink limit is established, I recommend that the business directly give the bartenders of the event the latitude to cut off any individual they believe has consumed too much.
- Provide an option for travel from the event: If alcohol is being served with the knowledge that employees then have return home afterward, an owner wants to avoid employees driving under the influence and causing an accident, which can potentially expose the business to liability. The employer offering the use (paid for by the business) of a taxi, shuttle service, Uber, or similar travel option decreases the odds of an employee driving under the influence.
- Make certain that proper releases are signed: A trend for these events is for the business to have a team building activity instead of a typical party. These activities have included such activities as hot air ballooning, bungee jumping, ziplining, a waterpark, or a similar activity that could lead to potential injury or other issues. If this type of activity is to occur, businesses need to make certain that their employees know the risks and sign the proper release forms for the activities—whether provided by the venue or created by the business. In addition, businesses should allow for employees who do not want to participate because of a physical or other limitation to fully participate in the event with co-workers in other ways. That way, it prevents the appearance of segregating employees or discrimination because of a physical or mental limitation.
- What is considered “entertaining” and “humorous” is often subjective: As highlighted in the paragraph above, what might be considered entertaining to some, may not be the same for everyone in the business. Businesses don’t want an employee feeling forced, uncomfortable or feeling pressured to participate in order to maintain their employment or advancement opportunities, which can lead to allegations of an uncomfortable and/or unsafe work environment. A business should always keep this in mind and allow for options where the employees do not have to participate in a specific activity or event and feel no obligation to do so.
- Remind employees that their conduct at this event is the same conduct required in the office: Employees need to be reminded that their actions impact the business at all times. Negative actions that would not be tolerated at the office (such as sexual harassment or committing a crime) are not allowed at a party. A reminder to behave appropriately in the event invitation or in a company-wide e-mail is appropriate.
Businesses want to reward their employees at the end of the year for their hard work and dedication. The primary goal is to reward employees in such a way where they both have a good time, feel appreciated yet are not put into a negative situation or scenario. A few basic guidelines established by the business beforehand go a long way to avoiding potential future legal pitfalls.
© 2020 Matthew W. Harrison and Harrison Law, PLLC All Rights Reserved
This website and article have been prepared by Harrison Law, PLLC for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal or financial advice. The information is not provided in the course of an attorney-client relationship and is not intended to substitute for legal advice from an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.