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‘Tis the season to avoid legal problems

The end-of-year holiday season should be one for festivities and frivolity. But, if business managers are not careful, this time of year also can be the season for legal problems and lawsuits.

Many legal issues can stem from holiday parties. When those events go awry, which happens with increasing frequency, legal problems tend to ensue. Some of the claims have merit and often lead to a liability and large settlements or judgments against businesses for horrendous holiday parties. Even if the claims are frivolous, they can consume substantial time, resources, and expenses that could be better devoted to other, more profitable pursuits.

Horrible Holidays 

Here are a few examples of holiday events that have led to horrors for Minnesota businesses:

  • During an event for a company's sales personnel at a Mall of America nightclub, one of the performers invited the top sales woman on stage and led in audience participation, signing salacious lyrics that are embarrassing to the woman. She gets teased about it after the party which leads to an argument with her boss. After she gets passed over for a promotion, she sues for harassment based on the events flowing from the party, and receives a large settlement.

  • To improve morale, a Minnesota company rents an athletic club for indoor games around the holiday season. During a volleyball match, the company’s owner pats the behinds of some of the female players as encouragement. His gestures lead to a lawsuit for sexual harassment that result in favorable verdicts for two of the participants.

  • At another company party at a downtown Minneapolis restaurant, a musician calls a man to the stage from the audience and uses a hidden scissors to clip off his tie, causing him to complain the following day to management that he was embarrassed, quits, and seeks unemployment compensation.

  • A number co-workers of a Minnesota nonprofit organization decide to get together informally to have a holiday party.  Although it is not officially sponsored by the company, they use company equipment and resources, including email to send out invitations. One woman who is not invited to the party claims she was overlooked because of her race and sues for discrimination. The company incurs substantial fees defending itself against her claim.

Tips & Traps 

Employers cannot avoid all of the problems. Any social gathering can go amiss and lead to legal issues. But here are some tips to follow to avoid getting trapped by legal issues at holiday events.

  • Limit LiquorAlcohol causes a large number of problems at business parties. Steps should be taken to limit accessibility to liquor without significantly dampening the festivities. Having a cash bar or furnishing one or two free drink tickets is preferable to an unlimited flow of liquor. Also, designate an individual to monitor drinking at tables during or after meals.

  • Plan Properly. A responsible employee should oversee the planning for any company sponsored event. Plans should be reviewed before commitments are made.  Presentations to be performed by professionals, such as comedians, musicians, singers, and the like, should be screened in advance.

  • Avoid Ad Libs: Stick to the plan. Avoid adding ad lib features such as content or other participatory events that may cause embarrassment or offense. Also, don’t encourage anyone to participate in these events when they are unwilling to do so.

  • Restrict Resources: Events that are not officially sponsored by a company can still lead to legal liability. If employees use company resources to plan the event, the company could be responsible for what occurs at it. Therefore, employees should be prohibited from using company resources, such as computer equipment and other items to plan their own private parties. If company premises are used for private parties, the companies should make sure that they screen the event and monitor behavior at it.

  • Investigate Incidents. All participants should be made aware that normal company policies relating to inappropriate behavior apply at these levels. Any complaints should be thoroughly investigated and prompt legal action taken to maintain or restrict them.

Following these procedures will not eliminate all potential legal problems, but they can minimize or prevent inappropriate conduct so that social functions will lead to levity, rather than litigation.

A final tip: Have some fun and Happy Holidays!