By: Susan L. Swatski, Esq. ( / link to bio)

December may be the season of joy for those celebrating at office holiday parties, but January is the season of joy for plaintiff lawyers celebrating the influx of lawsuits resulting from those parties. The key point for employers to remember is that holiday parties – no matter where they are located – are an extension of the workplace. Here are five practical suggestions for employers to limit their liability without sacrificing a merry celebration.

1. Pre-Party Planning
Employers should check their comprehensive general liability insurance policy to ensure that it covers third-party liquor liability. If your policy does not, then consider purchasing special event coverage or a liquor liability policy.
Remind employees that your office policies regarding harassment and substance abuse extend to the holiday party and refer them to your company handbook for a refresher. Remind supervisors of what to do if they witness a potential problem.
2. Christmas v. Holiday Party
Be careful not to offend employees or guests by limiting the celebration to those of only one religious belief or background. Consider acknowledging on the invitation that the party is intended to celebrate all of the holidays that fall within this time of year.
3. Whom to invite
Among the first questions that any employer must decide when hosting a party is, whom to invite?
Contract Workers v. Employees
While inviting contract and temporary workers may be a thoughtful gesture, employers should be wary of treating contract workers the same as employees; any action that dilutes the distinction could be used against the employer in subsequent litigation. Also, employers should know that they will be assuming legal liability for the conduct of all of their guests, including non-employees. Employers should consider only inviting contract and temporary workers if they are also inviting other non-employees such as clients and vendors. The liability risk will still be there – you can’t escape it completely – but at least you are not diluting any distinction your company is making between contract workers and employees.
Spouses v. Significant Others
Although an invitation to employees and their spouses may seem welcoming, it may have the opposite effect. Employers should be conscious that in many states same sex couples are not permitted to marry resulting in invitations limited to “spouses” coming across as exclusionary. Employers should consider extending invitations to “significant others” or “life partners” to be more inclusive. Inviting significant others may also reduce overindulgence of alcohol and reduce incidences of sexual harassment.
4. Serving Alcohol
Alcoholic beverages are probably the most common ingredient of any holiday party and also probably the cause of most litigation following a party. Some things an employer may do to limit its risk include:
*Offer ample non-alcoholic options;
*Serve plenty of food;
*Establish a drink limit by using drink tickets – limiting alcohol consumption will help to keep your guests more in control of their actions and could help to reduce the occurrence of actionable conduct such as sexual harassment and property damage;
*Offer a cash bar for alcoholic beverages (this option may limit consumption)(consider donating the proceeds to charity). Social host liability is not necessarily limited by asking guests to pay for alcohol;
*Hire a bartender to monitor consumption and check identification; and,
*Provide transportation – If alcohol will be available at the party, regardless of who is paying for it, make car service vouchers or other transportation available. Even though social host liability laws vary from state-to-state, this extra expense is well worth preventing one of your guests from injuring himself or someone else as a result of alcohol consumed at your party.
5. Forego Some Traditions
Some traditions such as mistletoe have no place in the work place – including a holiday party. Employers should also advise guests of a dress code to keep things professional. Avoid anything that could contribute to an environment of harassment.
We hope that you will follow these helpful tips so that you and your guests may celebrate this holiday season safely.