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Don’t get sued for your office party season

Before we get into this topic, please understand that I like parties as much as anyone and this article is not a lecture on dos or don’ts for the holidays. This article is intended to help you realize your exposure to legal action and mitigate possible damages resulting from the party.

It is a good idea to have a mandatory meeting a day or two before the party to hand out and review company policies on sexual harassment, unacceptable conduct and alcohol consumption.

Remind everyone that company policies will be enforced and they need to behave or face possible discipline when returning to work. Have a sign-in sheet to keep a record of who attended the policy review sessions.

OK, let’s get the boring HR stuff out of the way — you had to know it was coming.

Being off the clock may not be an issue and is probably the least of your concerns if:

• You did not require (directly or implied) attendance.

• No discipline results or is expected because of attending or not attending.

• Nonexempt employees were not assigned or asked to do any work before, during or after the actual party unless they are paid.

• No business was conducted at the party.

Off-site parties with alcohol are always a concern. People wear clothes they would not wear to work, alcohol loosens inhibitions, and dancing and game playing often lead to hanky-panky, so no mistletoe.

Here are things to consider that can reduce your legal exposure and liability while still having a good time. Remember these are suggestions and you may want to add or remove some:

• Invite spouses and significant others.

• Hire a professional bartender from the venue. Professionals are trained to stop serving intoxicated partygoers.

• Do not allow anyone to pour their own drinks.

• Do not have “one for the road.”

• To reduce alcohol-related activities, provide a limited number of drink tickets and do not have a cash bar.

• Make sure the bar stops serving alcoholic beverages at least an hour before the end of the party.

• Have plenty of coffee and other nonalcoholic drinks available.

• Have designated drivers, require the use of taxicabs or hire a company that takes drinkers home.

Now let’s talk about “technology” at the party.

After a little alcohol and having a great time at your party, guests may not appreciate seeing a video of themselves on YouTube the next day. This may be an embarrassment to your guests and may cost you attorney fees and a drop in morale.

While you may not be able to stop the cellphones and cameras, make sure your management team and key employees are aware of the possible problems.

Now fast-forward a few days after the party and look at possible problems you could expect if you were not careful.

Everyone had a good time, and some employees did have too much to drink, but it was off the clock and at a local hotel so why worry?

The holidays are over, and it is back to the regular routine at work, same problems, same demands and the same people. Except one employee that was at the party wants to talk with you — privately.

The employee alleges sexual harassment by another partygoer, and that means you need to conduct a full-blown sexual harassment investigation.

Your holiday party won’t be the last to have partygoers try to romance someone.

Also there is the possibility of an employee being injured at the party and the question of “does workers compensation cover the injury.” There may be a defense if the employee had been drinking as alcohol (or using controlled substances) may be considered as the cause of the injury.

Consider your options and plan a great time. But avoid as many pitfalls as possible.

Roger Bishop is a certified human resources specialist who owns and operates Applied Human Resources, Inc. in Las Vegas. He has experience in retail, manufacturing and logistics. He specializes in helping small to medium-size companies and non-profit organizations. Reach him at 702-237-1333 or by email at Roger@AppliedHumanResources.com.

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