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Keven Moore: ‘Tis the season for the ghost of Christmas party litigation — a workplace risk


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The Christmas season is in full swing and with it comes the “Ghost of Holiday Party Litigation” increasing the risk of a workplace claims arising from inappropriate workplace conduct such as harassment, sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination, and workplace health and safety issues.

Injuries suffered at the Holiday party or other workplace event can be the subject of a workers’ compensation claim against the employer.

Plenty of potential liability can be found in such places as that punch bowl, dance floor and even the coatroom. Not to mention the incalculable number of careers have gone screeching off course after an office holiday party.

According to one survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, one in ten workers know of a co-worker who has either been disciplined or dismissed for inappropriate behavior during a holiday bash.

With the increased use of smartphones and social media, what happens at the work party no longer stays at the party!

Office parties are likely to be considered employer-sponsored events which signifies that the employer is responsible for the conduct of their employees, both on-site and off-site.

Not all companies celebrate the holidays, but for those companies that do, it’s usually offered as a show of appreciation. Unfortunately in an alcohol-fueled environment many employees tend to lower their guard a little too much, resulting in incidents of fights, sexual harassment, bullying, discrimination and other inappropriate behavior.

I can still visualize one colleague several years ago who was dancing with himself in the mirror next to the dance floor with two round Christmas ornaments hanging from his zipper.

During these events colleagues oftentimes feel emboldened to speak more frankly with other colleagues which always leads to trouble, while others have even chosen to insult their bosses. Then there are others who make the mistake of engaging in amorous activity on company premises, while others have been known to abuse the copy machine by making inappropriate copies that end up in unsuspected places.

As a safety and risk management consultant and “part-time career counselor” today, I’m here to tell you that the painful regret that you may be experiencing after such a party, doesn’t count as an excusable sick day when you go to call-in.

The employer is also at risk to liabilities if proper action isn’t taken.

Employees should feel able to relax and let their hair down, however employers should remind their staff that inappropriate behavior could land them in serious trouble and even lead to job loss.

Employers should actually consider creating a holiday celebration policy, and publish it ahead of time restating that harassment policies are still in effect. Employers should also train managers to set the example and to be ready to ward off potential problems. As an employer in this too politically-correct society today even calling your event a Christmas party could have some employees feeling excluded and calling their attorney.

It’s best to just call it a seasonal or holiday celebration.

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Attendance at any holiday party should be voluntary and today most holiday parties encourage their employees to bring their spouses or significant others, which can also open up another risk of career-suicide. But if you make the mistake of inviting employees plus spouses, you stand the risk of making the same-sex couples feel excluded.

You should also be careful of the foods you serve. Consider gluten, peanut, shellfish, and other allergies, as well as vegetarian and vegan requirements. Clearly mark ingredients for dishes that do not have obvious contents to avoid such an expensive claim.

With all these varying liabilities do you feel like you need a drink now?

Let’s move on to that topic. It advised that employers avoid serving alcohol at their Holiday party for obvious reasons. But if alcohol is served, limit available amounts and have services available to drive employees home –and whatever you do don’t hang mistletoe in all the doorways.

The legal issue surrounding the serving of alcohol is whether the law will hold the employer liable if partygoers drive home under the influence and cause accidents. Laws vary from state to state, but I can offer some general guidelines to help minimize the risks by following these guidelines:

• Identifying and designating a responsible person at the event to oversee the party, keeping an eye on employee behavior and provide assistance if employees have any concerns.

• Make clear in pre-function communications that employees under the influence must stay out of the driver’s seat.

• Have a TIPS-trained bartender serve the alcohol. Having company employees bartend for their co-workers, or letting your employees serve themselves multiplies your liability.

• Establish a maximum number of drinks that an individual can have if you are serving alcohol with dinner and are not offering a bar.

• Offer cab vouchers that employees can use without having to go to a manager. Or have one employee make arrangements with ride-sharing companies to arrange rides home paid for by their employer.

• Assign certain managers to keep their eyes and ears open for individuals who appear intoxicated at the party.

• Serve plenty of nonalcoholic beverages as an alternative and serve lots of food to absorb and limit the effects of alcohol.

• Shorten the happy hour window to limit the number of drinks one can be served.

• Consider requiring your employees to pay for their alcoholic drinks, and then donate the payments to a charity, this will limit the number of drinks employees may consume.

Happy Holidays & Be Safe My Friends

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Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

To read more from Keven Moore, click here.


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