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Industry Insights

Keeping legal woes off the office holiday party invite list

By ,
Ian Meklinsky, partner, Fox Rothschild LLP.
Ian Meklinsky, partner, Fox Rothschild LLP.

It’s that time of year again, when companies host their annual holiday office parties. Some do it on site; some off site. Some serve alcohol, and others do not. Regardless of the specifics of the party, it’s imperative that companies understand their responsibilities and liabilities surrounding employee actions at these events. Claims of unlawful harassment and unprofessional conduct are rampant during the holiday season — there is even risk of liability to third parties, both at the event and outside of it.

Here are a few examples that can also provide guidance on what companies should look out for and avoid:

Example 1: The employee who gets partially undressed.

An intoxicated female employee climbs up on a table at the holiday party, then proceeds to slip her bra out from her dress and swings it around her head while dancing to the music. The music stops and she starts to yell. The office manager needs to find a way to get her off the table without compounding the embarrassment. The next day at work, the office manager needs to properly “discipline” the employee while taking into account the employee’s statement that she was dared to do it by a member of senior management.

Example 2: The manager who physically touches his assistant.

At the “after party,” again, with alcohol involved, a female office staff member sits on the arm of the chair a male manager is sitting in. After some pleasantries, the female employee points out that she recently had breast augmentation surgery and asks how the male manager thought it came out. The male office manager hesitates to respond, and then the female employee (who is visibly intoxicated) asks him if he wants to touch them. The male employee does not hesitate this time, says “sure” and proceeds to touch. Some other employees witness this and subsequently complain to the director of human resources. Company management then needs to deal with the male employee and, to some extent, the female employee as well.

Example 3: The employee who is arrested for drunk driving.

At the company party, an employee consumes too much alcohol. Instead of prohibiting the employee from driving, the company lets her leave, visibly intoxicated, and she gets behind the wheel of her car. She rear-ends another car at an intersection on the way home. The police are called and she is arrested after failing a field sobriety test. The owner of the other vehicle claims various neck and back pain after the accident.

The lessons:

  • Monitor the consumption of alcohol by all employees, and make sure that others do the same – the buddy system works! 
  • Educate employees — especially management employees — about setting appropriate boundaries with co-workers. Schedule harassment avoidance training just before the holiday season!
  • Set up or encourage alternative transportation for party-goers. Uber/Lyft are EASY options!

Ian Meklinsky is a partner with Fox Rothschild LLP. He serves as co-chair of the firm’s Labor and Employment Department and is a member of the Executive Committee. Ian practices labor and employment law, representing employers across the country in both union and non-union contexts. He can be reached at imeklinsky@foxrothschild.com

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