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Employment Law Tips to Remember at Your Company Christmas Party

— December 19, 2019

If you’re the employer, make your expectations clear. Let everyone know that they’re free to enjoy themselves but that misconduct of any kind won’t be tolerated.

Another successful year is finally coming to an end and you’re planning to celebrate. To make sure that your company’s Christmas party is festive and entertaining while being free from any legal implications, follow our tips for keeping spirits light without landing anyone in hot water. 

Location doesn’t excuse bad behavior 

Your holiday party might not be held at your place of employment, but that doesn’t mean you can let your guard down completely. Behavior that wouldn’t be considered acceptable at work can bring trouble for employees and employers alike. Flirting is out, and so is fighting. 

Skip the mistletoe

Accounts & Legal, who recently added legal services and employment law to their offerings, told us, “Sexual harassment policies are often broken at holiday parties, landing employees and employers in legal trouble. When you’re decorating, don’t accidentally encourage unwanted contact by hanging mistletoe, and make sure everyone understands that workplace policies apply. Employment law covers.” 

In the U.S., where many of the same company Christmas party rules apply, a male employee told a female colleague that he’d like to try her out in bed, and that she “needed a good man.” He went a step further by pulling down her dress at the Christmas party. Her claim of sexual harassment was successful and she was awarded $10,000. 

Gifts shouldn’t be NSFW

Lots of us appreciate the opportunity to give and receive gifts, but it’s important to keep presents for coworkers and bosses at the “clean” end of the spectrum – even if you’re great friends off-duty.

In case you’re the one in charge of setting up Secret Santa for your office, remind people to avoid anything that could be construed as offensive. Adult toys and lingerie are two obvious no-nos. Snazzy charging stations, roomy mugs, and fabulous edibles are usually well-received. Gift cards are perfect if you’re in a pinch for time.

Related: 5 Tips to Get the Most from Your Interns

Forced participation isn’t acceptable

Not everyone celebrates holidays. Even though your Christmas party might be an event most employees look forward to, there might be some who don’t want to participate for religious or personal reasons. Do invite everyone. Don’t insist on participation; instead, be gracious and understanding if anyone declines. If holiday bonuses are typically handed out at the party, discreetly provide non-participants with their bonus and a warm expression of gratitude.

Be careful with refreshments 

Personal responsibility is certainly a factor when employees choose to consume alcohol at your holiday party, but any liability caused by overdoing it could be pinned on the employer if a free bar is involved. There have been cases of vicarious liability in the past, where employees felt that their drunken bad behavior was perfectly acceptable since the company put on a free bar. 

While condoning irresponsibility isn’t the goal when treating employees to alcoholic beverages, people may misconstrue intent. Additionally, arrests or accidents stemming from drunk driving might land your company in trouble if free alcohol came into play and nothing was done to stop impaired employees from leaving.

Employees who think that free booze is a pass to engage in inappropriate behavior should reconsider. Previous cases involving gross misconduct fueled by access to free bars at holiday parties have ended in employee termination, as the presence of a free bar isn’t an acceptable defense for wrongdoing.

Man in black leather jacket dancing in confetti; image by CottonBro, via
Man in black leather jacket dancing in confetti; image by CottonBro, via

There’s another pitfall surrounding alcoholic beverages too: Underage drinking might be an issue unless you’re taking steps to ensure that minors aren’t being served. If you have employees who haven’t yet reached legal drinking age, treat them to their favorite beverages while making it clear that alcohol is off limits. 

Related: 6 Ways to Create a Healthy and Inspiring Work Environment

The takeaway

If you’re the employer, make your expectations clear. Let everyone know that they’re free to enjoy themselves but that misconduct of any kind won’t be tolerated. As for free booze, feel free to reward your employees if you think they can behave appropriately, and ensure that everyone has a safe ride home to reduce the potential for liability. 

If you’re an employee, have fun! At the same time, take a responsible stance by limiting your alcohol consumption and remembering that anything that wouldn’t be tolerated at work won’t be well-received by your coworkers and employer, even if you’re at a holiday party off-site. 

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