Hammered at the Holiday Party?

Avoiding alcohol-related injuries and lawsuits at workplace holiday parties

By Tamara Lytle Dec 3, 2015
LIKE SAVE PRINT
Reuse Permissions

When an employee raises a glass at a company celebration this holiday season, how do you make sure he’s not too jolly a good fellow?

“If possible, don’t serve alcohol. Alcohol can lead to lots of problems,” warned Jason Storipan, a New Jersey attorney with Fisher & Phillips, a labor and employment law firm. Employees who overindulge at a work function can cost a company millions if they injure someone driving drunk, injure themselves, become belligerent and pick a fight, or behave inappropriately and invite sexual harassment charges, he said.

Host liquor-liability laws vary by state, but in some states, employers can be sued for problems like employees driving drunk after holiday parties.

“Alcohol is the root issue of a lot of different legal claims,” said Nicholas J. Pappas, a partner in the employment litigation practice at Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York City. 

Yet, 59 percent of HR professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resource Management said their company would be serving alcoholic drinks at this year’s holiday functions.

Brad Karsh, CEO and founder of JB Training Solutions, a Chicago workplace training organization, said that whether or not a company serves alcohol at its holiday party depends a lot on the company. He said he worked in the advertising industry for years and the drinks flowed freely. “If they had said ‘no alcohol,’ there would have been an uprising.”

Sometimes, though, that led to the sort of bad behavior that keeps lawyers awake at night, Karsh said—people vomiting in cabs, executives doing inappropriate things with young assistants and more.

“If you feel like it’s part of your company culture [to serve alcohol] and it’s something people would enjoy, you should counsel people to stay in control,” Karsh said.

It doesn’t hurt to make sure your insurance covers all eventualities, too.

John Keller, director of risk management and claims at Gulf Shore Insurance in Naples, Fla., said that many general liability policies cover host liquor liability. And if they don’t, and the company doesn’t regularly serve alcohol, the coverage is usually inexpensive to purchase separately. If caterers are working at the event, he said, it’s a good idea to ask them to give the company additional insured status so that the caterer’s policy will help protect against lawsuits. 

Workers’ compensation coverage can come into play if someone is injured because of alcohol, since whether a party is work-related can be a gray area. In one important precedent-setting case, Torres v. Triangle Handbag Manufacturing Co., the company was sued under workers’ compensation when a jealous employee drank too much at the holiday party, then went outside and stabbed a colleague for dancing with a employee. The court ruled that the worker’s injuries were covered by workers’ compensation. 

Experts offered these tips for companies that plan to serve alcohol at their holiday events: 

  • Skip the open bar. “Bad things can happen from an HR perspective” when drinks are free, Karsh said. Giving each employee a couple of tickets for drinks helps tamp down overly enthusiastic drinking. Another idea is to charge people for drinks and then donate the money to a charity or to a later office pizza party.
  • Stick to beer and wine and avoid hard alcohol or fruity drinks that may go down too fast.
  • Hold your function earlier in the day when people tend to drink less.
  • Have the party at a restaurant, or use professional bartenders who are trained not to overserve customers. “You want people who are pros when it comes to serving alcohol,” Storipan said. “It also spreads the legal liability around if there’s a problem.”
  • Cut off drinks during dinner or dessert to give people a rest from consuming.
  • Encourage people to have a designated driver or to take a cab home. Uber is an option for many companies and taxis can be on standby, while the company can offer vouchers for each. 
  • Ask company managers or security guards to keep an eye out for people who are drinking too much, to cut off their drinks if they are, and to arrange safe transportation for them home
  • Serve plenty of food so employees can busy themselves with something other than alcohol.
  • Offer entertainment like dancing, a photo booth or a comedian so people have something to do other than drink.
  • Invite families. “People are less likely to go a little crazy with the spouse or kids there,” Storipan pointed out.

And Storipan advised sending out a reminder before the party about company policies on alcohol and sexual harassment. “I know it can be a buzzkill for the holiday spirit, but remind people: ‘These are our policies.’ ”

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer based in Falls Church, Va.

LIKE SAVE PRINT
Reuse Permissions

SHRM CONNECT

Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You

SPONSOR OFFERS

Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect