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Another Voice: Prevent problems when planning holiday office party

By Mark A. Moldenhauer

Company holiday parties are a time-honored tradition. They give co-workers a chance to unwind, socialize and celebrate the past year’s achievements. Too often, however, employers ignore potential legal pitfalls associated with such events.

Fortunately, following a few simple rules will help ensure a safe, welcoming experience for all, without diminishing the cheer.

Rule 1: It’s still a work function.

Bah humbug. Nevertheless, always remember that what happens at the holiday party does not necessarily stay at the holiday party. Interactions between co-workers can influence workplace dynamics. In some cases, they can result in liability.

Prohibitions against sexual and other forms of harassment apply beyond the physical confines of the workplace. Immediately stop any behavior that might be viewed as offensive, hostile or demeaning. Also, be aware that the New York Human Rights Law was recently amended to extend protections against sexual harassment to certain nonemployees, including vendors, contractors and interns.

A little common sense and tact will help prevent a holiday party from going off the rails. Tell your vendor or banquet facility to keep things professional. Check the DJ’s set list. Avoid suggestive gifts and “roasting”-type speeches (even if the intended target is not offended, someone else might be). Designate a “spotter” to watch for improper behavior. Leave the mistletoe at home.

Rule 2: Keep tabs on the bar.

Not surprisingly, alcohol contributes to many holiday party misadventures. If you serve, consider the risks and ways to reduce them. Liability for injuries depends on several factors, such as where the accident occurred, whether alcohol was served illegally, and whether the injured person is an employee (possibly triggering a workers’ compensation claim).

Require bartenders to check identification. Arrange transportation to and from the event. Cover cab fares. Negotiate rates at nearby hotels. Restrict bar hours or the types of alcohol served. Distribute drink vouchers. Instruct bartenders to cut off guests who appear inebriated.

Rule 3: Make your list, check it twice.

Yes, organizing the ugly sweater contest is important. But also think about ways to minimize the potential impact of unanticipated issues. Ensure that your vendor or banquet facility carries sufficient liability insurance. Contact your own insurance carrier to discuss whether all appropriate policies are up to date. Consider formats that discourage heavy drinking, such as a breakfast, lunch or family-friendly function.

Mark A. Moldenhauer is a labor and employment attorney in the Buffalo office of Bond, Schoeneck & King.

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