6 easy ways to keep your workplace holiday party — without a lawsuit.

Follow these rules, and you can’t go wrong!

A recent survey indicated that employers were cutting back on holiday parties in 2018.

The consulting firm that conducted the survey speculated that #MeToo might be the reason for employers’ less festive approach. (However, it also noted that holiday parties are harder to organize nowadays because so many employees work remotely.)

Should employers abandon their holiday parties out of fear of sexual harassment claims? In my opinion, that would be extreme. Here are six rules that will allow you to keep your party while minimizing your legal risks.

No. 1: Resign yourself to the fact that, in our legal environment, workplace parties can no longer be as wild and crazy as non-work parties. Limits will have to be imposed. Employees can still have a nice time, but maybe not a “great” time, if you know what I mean.

No. 2: Before the party, remind employees that this is a workplace event and that normal standards of conduct still apply. Well, maybe not all of them, assuming you don’t normally allow drinking on the job, but all of the others. I’d cite to the harassment policy, explain the company’s arrangements for employees who can’t safely get home, and remind employees in advance that being “under the influence” is not a defense to disciplinary action based on bad behavior at (or after) the party.

No. 3: Designate reliable employees to be low-key “chaperones.” These employees should not consume alcohol during the party. Their role is to socialize but also be alert to any budding problems (sexual harassment, but also heated arguments, inappropriate jokes, an employee who seems to be in danger of a blackout, and the like) and to tactfully intervene before things get out of hand. They can also act as designated drivers or escorts if the need arises. Because they’ll be “on duty” at the party, these chaperones should be paid for their time if they’re non-exempt. You can also consider giving them thank-you gifts or bonuses in exchange for giving up their right to party.

No. 4: Invite spouses and significant others. I have to admit that I’ve had clients tell me that sometimes the partners of employees are the worst offenders at a holiday party. But I still think that, for the most part, an employee’s partner will be a force for good. A person is obviously less likely to flirt or “pair off” with a co-worker (which can lead to sexual harassment claims) if the partner has an eye on them. The partner may also be in the best position to judge and speak up when the employee has had too much to drink.

No. 5: Speaking of drinking, put some limits on it. There are a lot of ways to do this without having to single anyone out or be confrontational: Offer a cash bar with exorbitant prices, close the bar entirely after two hours, issue a limited number of drink tickets (two per person should be plenty for a workplace party). You can also have a party that is entirely alcohol-free, but that shouldn’t be necessary as long as you don’t allow the attendees to get roaring drunk.

No. 6: If you get a complaint about inappropriate behavior that occurred at the party, handle it exactly the same way you would a complaint about inappropriate behavior that occurred in the workplace. Again, it’s not a defense to inappropriate behavior of any kind — whether harassing, nasty, or unsafe — that the individual was drunk or that the bad behavior occurred at a party. 

Now, go have fun! But not too much fun.

Robin Shea is a Partner with the law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP and has more than 20 years’ experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act), the Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act, the Equal Pay Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act; and class and collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act and state wage-hour laws; defense of audits by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs; and labor relations. She conducts training for human resources professionals, management, and employees on a wide variety of topics.


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