It’s December and it’s party time. Regardless of whether you are hosting an event or attending them, they are a great way to get to know your co-workers, customers, and vendors better and to express appreciation and thanks for the contributions they’ve made to your business success. But you know I wouldn’t be writing about it if beneath the shiny tinsel and mistletoe there didn’t lurk some potential legal pitfalls.
I don’t mean to be a party-pooper, but all too often people forget that they are at a holiday business party instead of a business holiday party. The operative word is business regardless of whether you’re attending a fancy-schmancy black-tie gala or at a pot luck luncheon in the company break room.
Holiday business party planning is one venue where a little bit of legal literacy can go a long way towards managing unwanted liability. Take for example that mistletoe. It can be an express train to a sexual harassment suit. Why invite trouble? There are plenty of other holiday decorations to choose from.
Speaking of decorations, another potential pitfall is decorations with a religious theme. Folks who don’t share the same denomination may feel it is a form of religious discrimination . . . a definite no-no. Keeping the focus nondenominational and secular makes the event more comfortable and enjoyable for everyone.
Of course the big question is whether to serve alcohol. An open bar that includes red and green Jello shots can certainly get the party rolling; but indulging can loosen inhibitions and lead to risky behaviors ranging from inappropriate sexual conduct (we’re back to the mistletoe again) to personal injury resulting from dancing on tables or driving while under the influence. And guess who could be on the hook for the mischief? That’s right: the company. After all, it is a business function. Just because it may be off-site doesn’t mean the company isn’t liable.
While the legal risk exposure of serving hard liquor is essentially the same from business to business, social expectations necessarily aren’t; and that’s where it can be difficult to draw the line about what beverages to serve. Depending on your comfort level there are a couple of ways to manage the social expectations of hard liquor.
One is with the timing of the party. We’re not living in the Mad Men era so there is less likelihood of hard drinking or heavy drinking in a luncheon setting than in the evening. Another way to reduce the expectation of hard liquor is to make the event more family oriented, include the kids.
If you’re compelled to have an open bar, consider offering only beer, wine and non-alcoholic selections. Or, if the choices must include hard liquor, consider a cash bar, a voucher system or a limited happy hour as ways of avoiding overindulgence. In addition, as an added precaution, make alternate transportation available to guests who exceed their own limits.
At first glance it may all sound like more trouble than its worth. You might have some defenses available if you get sued; but it will cost you time and money to assert them — resources that are better spent on growing the business instead of defending it.
If you party responsibly you won’t have a legal hangover that can drag on for years.