Reduce liability risks at holiday party

Ms. Shiner claimed that at the company holiday party she was fondled, had her boss’s tongue in her ear, was chased around a table and propositioned.

All of this undesired attention, and more, she alleged, was given partly in retaliation for her having complained about the previous years’ holiday parties. This isn’t a bad television sitcom episode but a claim brought in the lawsuit titled Shiner v. State University of New York, et al.

Stories like this cause human resources professionals to shudder, and owners to wonder whether having a holiday party is worth the trouble. Human resources professionals know that unsuitable conduct, even at a party, can subject their organization to liability for sexual harassment. Savvy executives understand that for all the team building that holiday parties can provide, they also can provide opportunities for inappropriate statements and comments. Without thoughtful planning, companies risk that employees will feel like they do not fit in, sometimes because of racial or other cultural differences, or just because the party is not their style.

While it is cliché to have a list of dos and don’ts for a holiday party, given the rewards of throwing an excellent party, and the risks of one that turns into an intoxicated bacchanal, those cautions bear repeating. Following are some suggestions to help reduce those risks:

1. Skip alcohol altogether, or limit alcohol consumption by providing a cash bar, or a designated time period during which drinks are sold or provided free of charge.

2. Have only wine and beer available rather than hard liquor, and make non-alcoholic drinks readily available.

3. Retain outside servers or bartenders to handle these duties.

4. Communicate that drinking is not a requisite part of any office gathering and discourage senior members from encouraging junior members of their team to drink.

5. Remind employees that they are not to drive and drink, and that they may choose to make arrangements for a designated driver.

6. Provide alternate transportation options for the employees at the company’s expense.

7. Provide food throughout the gathering, and consider closing the bar an hour before the party’s anticipated ending, and providing wonderful desserts to entice people to stay, have a cup of coffee, and finish the evening.

8. Remind all participants of your harassment policy, and that the behavior at any gathering should continue to be professional and appropriate.

9. Invite employees’ spouses and partners to attend the party.

10. Remind employees that while holidays are festive, they should not wear clothing that is inappropriately revealing or crosses the boundaries of good taste.

11. Avoid having executives or managers sponsor “after party” gatherings.

12. Do not ask employees to take on the responsibility of monitoring the party activity and do not make such parties mandatory, as each might have wage and hour implications.

According to an article published by the Society for Human Resources Management in November 2013, a poll taken by the North Carolina firm, Public Policy Polling, reported that employees at companies that serve alcohol or have open bars are most likely to say that their employers don’t provide rules about party behaviors and that their colleagues act inappropriately during festivities.

All of this offers a cautionary tale, lest the behavior of one of your employees gives rise to the type of allegations made by Ms. Shiner following New York University’s 2010 department Christmas party. Remind your employees of your company’s policies and expectations, and make plans that will allow a great holiday gathering for all attendees.

Thomas Godar is a labor and employment attorney at Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek.

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display