'Tis the season ... for personal injury claims?

More adventurous office holiday parties increase risk of harm

In recent years, holiday parties have caused increased anxiety for many employers trying to share seasonal joy and good tidings with their employees while putting safeguards in place to avoid sexual harassment claims and drinking and driving infractions and injuries. That’s why Deborah Brouwer, a partner with Detroit-based labor and employment law firm Nemeth Law, says it’s curious to note a national trend of employers hosting holiday parties at potentially risky venues and, in at least one case, offering controversial and sometimes downright dangerous holiday gifts.

“A Wisconsin employer recently gave its employees a $500 gift certificate valid towards the purchase of a firearm,” Brouwer said. “Those not interested could substitute the gift card for a different purchase, but the majority said they plan to use the gift certificate for its intended purpose. This practice could put employers directly in harms’ way from a legal standpoint should the employee injure herself or another individual with the weapon, regardless of whether such an incident occurs in the workplace.”

Brouwer added that holiday parties hosted at the newly popular axe-throwing establishments pose similar risks.

“Employers may be inviting trouble by holding their holiday gatherings at any venue where a weapon is involved – and axe throwing, for example, involves weaponry regardless of how novel and safe it may be positioned as a corporate experience,” Brouwer said. “Axe throwing, racing venues and other recreational activities that pose inherent risk of harm should not be hosted by employers in general, and certainly not when alcohol is served.”

Brouwer says employer holiday party guide­lines are generally consistent each year, and that this year’s mention of safe venues is an anomaly.

“We are adding the strong suggestion of hosting parties in a safe place when advising employers on holiday party best practices this year,” Brouwer said. “There are still several guidelines for parties that remain constant from year to year.”

Brouwer offers the following considerations:

• Senior management and HR representatives from the organization should attend the party, follow all company policies and set an example for the organization in terms of appropriate behavior.

• The company’s sexual harassment policy should be reviewed prior to the party — and enforced on the spot if questionable behavior becomes evident. 

• Remind employees that while the holiday party is meant to celebrate the season and/or their contributions from the past year, the event is still a business function and inappropriate behavior may result in discipline, including termination.

• Ditto for party pictures and social media party posts. Remind staff in advance of the celebration that the company’s social media policy still applies at the event, and that actions will be taken against those who don’t follow the spirit of the policy.

• If alcohol is served and employees (including interns) under the age of 21 will be present, be sure to implement and follow a “We ID” policy.

• For crowd control and better monitoring of party activities, consider limiting parties to employees rather than adding clients and vendors.

• Consider moving celebratory events to Monday or Tuesday evenings rather than Thursday or Friday evenings.

• Invite all employees to the party, but make it clear that attendance is voluntary. Not everyone celebrates the holidays and employees should not feel pressured to attend.

• Don’t drink and drive should be the mantra. If possible, arrange for transportation in advance for employees who may not be able to drive. Shuttles and car services are an excellent option, but can be costly. Consider alternatives, including offering to reimburse employees for cab fares or ride-hailing services.

If your workplace has no definite holiday plans this year – and the aforementioned guidelines haven’t scared you off – Brouwer suggests holding a less formal, alcohol-free breakfast or lunch event on-site and then closing the office early.

“Less formal parties can be a two for one; staff get to celebrate the season with colleagues while also getting paid time off during the busy holiday season — and employers avoid the pitfalls of events where alcohol is served — or weapons are thrown,” Brouwer said.

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