How to mitigate the risks of workplace holiday parties

Thanksgiving is a sure sign that workplace holiday parties and events are right around the corner.

As much fun as those celebrations can bring, they also carry the potential for employers to end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Recent years, in fact, have shown that fewer employers hold holiday events. However, the new 2019 survey on holiday parties from global outplacement and business- and executive-coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. reports that nearly 76% of employers (HR reps were polled) plan to hold a holiday party this year, the highest percentage since 2016, when 80% planned festivities.

Beth Zoller, legal editor at XpertHR, an online compliance resource, explains that  holiday parties can create unintended negative consequences for employers in a variety of ways. Mainly, they can be a breeding ground for all kinds of regrettable and potentially unlawful behavior, from claims of religious discrimination to sexual harassment and drunk driving.

XpertHR offers several ways an employer can minimize the risk of liability associated with holiday parties:

  • Notify employees that all workplace policies remain in effect
  • Have supervisors set a good example
  • Exercise caution if serving alcohol
  • Don’t focus on anything religious
  • Don’t make attendance mandatory
  • Be inclusive of all employees
  • Respond to complaints in a timely manner

“Employers should be especially careful when serving alcohol at a holiday party,” Zoller emphasizes, adding that, without safeguards in place, alcohol consumption can quickly transform a lively celebration into one with unintended consequences.

Related: Here’s how to avoid legal pitfalls

With lowered inhibitions, employees may make unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate gestures or offensive remarks, resulting in claims of harassment and discrimination. In addition, if an intoxicated employee drives away from the company party and injures someone or causes property damage, an employer may be liable for negligence.

“Providing employees with the opportunity to socialize with co-workers in a relaxing environment is an excellent way to improve employee morale,” Zoller says. “However, serving alcohol to employees is a risk and a potential liability. Therefore, she says, employers should ensure that employees are aware of the employer’s code of conduct and policies regarding harassment and improper conduct.

“This is particularly true in the #MeToo era, when the risk of liability is heightened,” Zoller notes.

Overindulgence in alcohol may also lead to negligence claims for property damage or physical and emotional injuries, whether the employee is on or off the clock.

“Even though the event may be held away from the employer’s premises and during what is generally considered to be non-working hours, the employer should reiterate that the same policies are in effect and that employees should treat each other with respect and common courtesy,” Zoller says.

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Tom Starner
Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at