Minimize Risk at Holiday Parties By Reminding Employees of Behavior Policies

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By Caryn Freeman

Nov. 26 — Reminding employees that rules of conduct apply at company holiday parties helps minimize inappropriate behavior that can leave employers liable for harassment and other misconduct, employer-side attorney Bob Nobile, a partner in Seyfarth Shaw's New York office, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 26.

“Unfortunately, during the course of my career I've had to handle a number of matters for clients that involved misconduct and other things which have occurred at holiday parties,” Nobile said.

Right after Thanksgiving, Nobile said, he advises clients to send out a reminder to employees that during holiday parties, the established rules, regulations, policies and procedures apply to their conduct.

“Unfortunately, during the course of my career I've had to handle a number of matters for clients that involved misconduct and other things which have occurred at holiday parties,” attorney Bob Nobile said.

Employees need to be aware “that the dress code applies, the harassment policy applies and certainly that they are to abide by the policy on use of alcohol and drugs, which means no drug use and no abusing alcohol,” he said. “Hopefully they will give that some thought when they are at the event.”

He added that both the employer and the establishment where the party is being held should be monitoring employee behavior.

“Put the establishment where you are having the party on notice that you are going to hold them responsible if they serve employees who appear to be impaired or intoxicated,” Nobile said. “Monitoring behavior, in my mind, is very important on the part of the establishment and the employer.”

Nobile offered employers the following tips for minimizing liability at holiday parties:

• Hand out drink tickets, typically allowing for no more than two alcoholic beverages. “There is less of a tendency to have people over-imbibing when the number of drinks they are allotted is limited,” Nobile said.

• Be sure that bartenders and waitresses are instructed that they are not to serve anyone who appears to be impaired or intoxicated. “If they do observe someone in that state, they should notify the company representative hosting the party,” he said.

• Appoint “deputies.” According to Nobile, employers should “have certain people in management and in human resources on alert that they are responsible during the evening to observe that employees are behaving properly.”

Andria Lure Ryan, an attorney who represents employers in numerous areas of employment and labor law, echoed Nobile's comments about codes of conduct. Ryan, a partner at Fisher and Phillips in Atlanta, told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 26 that employers need to remind employees that their conduct and behavior at holiday events reflects on the company and “the company expects employees to enjoy the event while maintaining professional standards in their conduct and dress.”

“Make sure that managers and HR representatives set the example for employees and are prepared to defuse or intervene in any situation that is getting uncomfortable,” she advised.

Who will be in charge of deciding when an employee has consumed too much alcohol, and how employees who drink too much will get home are factors that should be considered prior to any company-hosted event, Ryan said.

Religious and Other Party Considerations

Ryan commented that employers that deal directly with religious, ethnic and generational differences when planning a holiday party are more likely to foster an inclusive environment. She said it's important that all employees feel welcome but are not required to attend a holiday party.

“Consider allowing spouses and significant others to attend,” Ryan said, especially at a night-time event.

“I even work with one client that—instead of an employee party—holds a holiday event for the children and grandchildren of employees,” she noted, adding that at that event, there are “no alcohol or dress code issues.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Caryn Freeman in Washington at cfreeman@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Simon Nadel at snadel@bna.com