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Avoid legal problems at holiday parties

The past year has been a momentous, historic, and calamitous one, and as 2016 draws to a close it's probably a good idea for businesses, employers, and employees to unwind before welcoming in 2017. End-of-year holiday parties are one way to do so. But those organizing, planning, or participating in them should be wary. 

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.

Being aware of these pitfalls and following these tips may not assure a problem-free way to celebrate the end of 2016, but they can help avoid legal complications heading into 2017, which can make this time of year enjoyable for everyone.

Happy Holidays!