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Cheers to Tears — Top 10 Ways to Avoid a Potential Lawsuit at Office Parties

By December 2, 2011October 24th, 2018Fred Whitaker,

With the holidays approaching, more than 75% of all companies plan to hold parties to boost office morale, reward employees, break down barriers, and celebrate the end of a year. These celebrations may involve games, dancing, or other types of entertainment. Nearly 60% of the companies plan to serve alcohol at their holiday party, yet more than 25% of employers have no policy regarding alcohol consumption at company events. You might think the only legal ramification from alcohol at an office party is arrest for driving while intoxicated. However, these parties also are fertile ground for various discrimination cases, including sexual, age, race, defamation, and disability regardless of whether the event takes place at the office or an outside venue.

When planning an office party, keep in mind that alcohol tends to lower a person’s inhibition, potentially resulting in statements being made that could be construed as harassment or defamation. Alcohol and safety also may not mix. Other than car accidents, unwanted incidents related to excess alcohol consumption might include:

  • Injuries at the event, which may be considered injuries at work if the party is held at the office
  • Arguments and physical fights that could lead to assault and battery charges
  • Unwanted sexual advances

These incidents may expose employers to civil and criminal liability based on negligence and other common law or statutory claims, and can be exacerbated if a supervisor was present when the alleged incident occurred.

When it comes to gifts and cards, lingerie and other sexually inappropriate gifts, as well as gifts and cards seen as romantic or sexually humorous could lead to a sexual harassment lawsuit. In addition, religious cards or gifts could be construed as religious discrimination.

With that in mind, we want your office to be a success.  Here are 10 tips to avoid a lawsuit when holding an office party:

  1. Create an Event Planning Committee. The committee should consist of one supervisor and an employee.  The committee members should be well versed in company policies, especially those regarding the company’s complaint system, harassment, violence, alcohol, defamation, gifts and entertainment, and safety, to ensure that each of those areas are well covered in the planning process.
  2. Carefully Plan the Event. The committee should pay special attention to:
    1. Type of event. Make sure it is appropriate and be aware of potential pitfalls.
    2. Time of event. Evening events outside of the office tend to be more informal.
    3. Location
    4. Food. Serve food before alcohol.
    5. Alcohol. Consider only wine and beer, and limit the amount allowed for each person.
    6. Attire. No inappropriate or suggestive attire.
    7. Transportation. Evaluate whether the company should provide transportation if the event is offsite and alcohol would be served.
  3. Carefully Choose the Venue. Companies may decide to hold parties at the office due to the weak economy, but that could increase legal risks. Consider holding an event at a restaurant, a museum, or civic venue, and note safety issues in parking and transportation.
  4. Consider Type and Time of Event. Late afternoon or evening events typically lead to increased alcohol consumption and potential inappropriate and unsafe behaviors. Consider having breakfast or luncheon events without alcohol. There should be no company-sponsored pre- or post-parties. Also consider events such as a charity drive or service events, where alcohol is not involved.
  5. Invite Spouses and/or Significant Others. Peopleare more likely to exhibit appropriate behavior if spouses, significant others, or family members attend. This also reduces the chance for flirtation. Still, we do not recommend hanging mistletoe.
  6. Consider Steps to Avoid Alcohol-Related Mishaps. Consider avoiding alcohol, or serve it in limited quantities. Give drink tickets and do not offer an open bar. Do not serve “hard” liquor. Designate drivers or provide buses or other forms of safe transportation. Utilize a licensed bartender. Do not serve minors (check ID!). Provide a printed disclaimer and invitation to use alternative transportation at alcohol serving stations.
  7. Consider Safety of Employees and Guests. Complete a safety review of the venue, including parking lots and neighborhoods.
  8. Avoid Religious Aspects of the Event. Respect those with no religious affiliations or who do not celebrate Christmas by celebrating without a religious theme of reference.
  9. Train and Communicate about Behavior Expectations. Review work place policies and discuss those policies with employees prior to the event. Policies covered may include harassment prevention, designated drivers or alternate transportation options, suggested attire, alcohol consumption limits, and system to file a complaint. Explain the application of policies for office parties.
  10. Clearly Define the Important Role of Supervisors. Last but not least, train supervisors to be role models for respectful and appropriate behavior at the event, and about remind supervisors about their legal obligations to ensure a respectful workplace. For the event, consider placing supervisors at each table and in strategic places throughout the venue.  Supervisors should be on the lookout for troublesome behavior, and should act quickly and appropriately when poor or unsafe behavior occurs.


We hope these tips will help you ensure a safe and successful company gathering.