The Risks of Alcohol at Company Parties

Eggnog, Christmas punch, and an open bar can liven up a company holiday party. But drinking can lead to undesirable behaviors and accidents that harm employees and other people. Employers can be held liable for the actions of their drunken guests; they need to understand their liabilities and how to protect their companies and their employees.

Personal Injury
Companies may be considered “social hosts” with responsibility for the alcohol consumption of their guests, i.e., their employees. Courts in some states have held employers liable for serving alcohol to minors or to employees who become drunk and injure themselves or others. Certain states expect employers to take reasonable measures to prevent injuries by inebriated employees, and may hold them liable if they fail to do so.Employers may also be sued for alcohol-related incidents under state wrongful death or survivor laws.

Harassment
When intoxicated employees make inappropriate overtures toward coworkers at holiday parties, employers may be liable for harassment claims. Citing a number of cases in which employees complained of harassment at company parties, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals noted, “Office Christmas parties also seem to be fertile ground for unwanted sexual overtures that lead to Title VII complaints.” (Title VII is a federal civil rights law that prohibits workplace discrimination and harassment.)

What to Do
Many employers choose to have parties without any alcoholic beverages. After all, alcohol is not a requirement for a successful party.
Companies that choose to serve alcohol at their holiday parties need to do so cautiously. Holding the company party off-site and outside of work hours and making attendance voluntary may help limit the employer’s liability for the actions of drunken employees. Here are other steps employers can take to ensure the wellbeing of their employees and reduce their companies’ legal exposure:

  • Limit alcohol consumption: Do not have an open bar; hire bartenders and instruct them to serve limited amounts of alcohol; give out a limited number of drink tickets to each guests; or have guests pay for alcoholic beverages.
  • Serve food.
  • Serve non-alcoholic drinks, like eggnog without the rum, “mocktails,” fruit juice, sparkling water and cider, and sodas.
  • Have the party during the day. People tend to drink less at parties held during the day.
  • Make the party a family event. People are less likely to drink to excess with their spouses and children present.
  • Check IDs to make sure underage workers do not drink alcohol.
  • Take keys away from guests who are drunk.
  • Provide alternate transportation (shuttles, taxis, designated drivers) for intoxicated guests.
  • Provide hotel rooms or other places for guests to crash and sleep it off.

Managers and supervisors play key roles in keeping parties safe and sober. Before the festivities they should remind employees that sexual harassment policies apply to company events outside of work. Employers should appoint management staff to monitor employee drinking and behavior and to step in as necessary. Senior management must lead by example, enjoying the party while behaving responsibly and remaining sober.

For more information on how to have a Safe Holiday Party, check out our article A Season for Safety.

Sources:

The Office Christmas Party and Legal Liability. Legalzoom. http://www.legalzoom.com/business-management/running-your-business/office-christmas-party-and

Alcohol and Xmas Parties: Managing the Liability Risks. OHS Insider. http://ohsinsider.com/do-diligence/alcohol-xmas-parties-managing-the-liability-risks

Assessing and Avoiding the Liability Risks of Alcohol at Parties. Safety X Change. http://www.safetyxchange.org/compliance-risk-management/assessing-avoiding-liability-risks