Party time

Companies have many thing to think about when planning a staff holiday party, including the availability of alcohol and the attendance policy.

Party season is upon us. Company party season, that is. Starting with Halloween and rolling through the end-of-the-year holiday season, company-sponsored events range from officewide costume contests to potluck lunches to all-out holiday bashes.

While these are great opportunities for rewarding hard work and build team culture, these events also carry risk for employers.

Here are a few things to consider when planning your upcoming events:

1. Is it mandatory? As a general rule, an employer can require employee attendance at a company event. However, just because you can, does not necessarily mean that you should. Mandatory attendance at a work function, particularly if outside of normal work hours, may have a negative effect on employee morale, which is contrary to the goals of these events. It may also create additional work for your HR staff to take attendance and track the hours “worked” while attending the mandatory function.

If the event is mandatory, employers should make sure they are in compliance with all legal pay requirements for hourly employees. Additionally, employers should have a plan for employees who refuse to attend the mandatory event. Meaning, is the employer prepared to discipline (or even terminate) the non-attending employee for being insubordinate?

2. Is there a dress code? Whether Halloween costumes in the office or formal party wear at a holiday cocktail party, employers should encourage employees to use common sense in their dress. Particularly with Halloween costumes in the office, employees should follow PG-rated themes. While risque costumes may work for a weekend Halloween party amongst friends, these costumes may run afoul of the company’s anti-harassment policy and result in employee complaints.

3. Open bar? Whether the event is in the office or off-site, alcohol consumption at company-sponsored events is always a concern. For example, an overserved employee may be more likely to make inappropriate comments or advances toward another employee in violation of the company’s anti-harassment policy. And just because the event is outside of work hours, does not alleviate the company’s responsibility to enforce its policies, particularly its anti-harassment policy. Additionally, a company can be liable – as a social host – for any injury or accident resulting from an overserved employee driving home from the event.

Other ways to moderate drinking during the event — thereby preventing potential bad behavior — include: warning the employees of the expectation of responsible drinking in advance of the event; using a drink ticket system; or limiting the amount of time that the bar is open.

Keep these three things in mind to maximize the fun of party season while minimizing the chance of a lawsuit.

ADAM BARTROM is a partner the Labor and Employment Department of Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Fort Wayne office. He can be reached at or 260-425-4629.

ADAM BARTROM is a partner the Labor and Employment Department of Barnes & Thornburg LLP’s Fort Wayne office. He can be reached at or 260-425-4629.

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