The holiday season tends to bring out the festive spirit in people and in companies. People throw Christmas parties, New Year’s Eve parties; some even throw Thanksgiving and Winter Solstice parties. But, when companies decide to throw similar parties the logistics and concerns frequently seem far more complicated. Huffington Post recently posted a top 10 list of office holiday party “fails.” It contained some of the well-known pitfalls, particularly ones with alcohol, and included others like constantly being on your phone, wearing inappropriate clothing, and constantly discussing work topics. But there are other areas of concern when considering an office holiday party like:
Discrimination: Washington State law and federal law prohibit employment discrimination and these prohibitions can apply to parties both during work hours and after work hours. Deciding what to call the company/office party can be a challenge. Not every employee will celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah or any religious holiday. For this reason, many parties are now called “Holiday” parties or for the exceptionally careful “End of Year Festivities.” Additionally, there may be concerns if the party is mandatory, since not all religions condone parties or the activities that may occur at a party.
Religious discrimination is not the only concern though. There is also the concern about who and how to invite non-employees. Washington allows same-sex marriage, so “spouse” no longer generates an automatic reflex for “sexual orientation discrimination,” but it can raise issues with unmarried employees. Marital status is a protected ground, even if it is often overlooked, under discrimination laws. If you choose to invite spouses, more neutral terms like “guest” or “significant other” are fairly safe.
Liability: As we discussed in an earlier blog there is almost always a concern with an employer serving or providing alcohol at a party. When the words “alcohol” and “office party” are combined, one of the first images that comes to mind is the stereotype of an over-served employee losing all inhibitions and making inappropriate comments or unwanted sexual advances. This particular concern is for employees and employers since improper behavior may be more than an embarrassing memory or photo after the fact. It may also lead to claims of harassment, termination, or other unintended consequences.
There is also a worry about employee’s driving while intoxicated and the dangers associated with it. Not only is this a concern for employee safety, it is also an opening for potential liability on the employer for any injuries or damages the intoxicated employee causes. Additionally, if children or under-aged employees will be in attendance and will have easy access to alcohol, the employer can be held responsible for their consumption of alcohol. But that does not mean that an employer can never serve alcohol at a party without major liability potential. Proper consideration and measures in place to address any foreseeable problems can alleviate some of the worries and dangers of serving full-strength eggnog, if an employer so chooses.
The holidays can be good for morale and can be a good excuse for an office party. Most office parties, during the holidays or any other time of year, take place without any problems or major cause for concern. But, if you have any concerns or employment law problems arise around a holiday party, an experienced Washington employment law attorney can help.