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Q&A: Is serving alcohol at the holiday party a liability? If so, what can we do to protect ourselves?

Question:

Is serving alcohol at the holiday party a liability? If so, what can we do to protect ourselves?

Answer from Kyle, PHR:

Yes, alcohol can be a liability. Partygoers who overindulge could cause an accident at or after the party, or they might act in ways that violate your harassment policy.

There are steps you can take to protect both yourself and your employees. Here are some practices you might consider:

Ahead of Time

  • Employers may be liable for employee misconduct and negligence when the employee is acting “in the course and scope of employment,” so make these kinds of events optional and clearly communicate that attendance is neither expected nor required.
  • Don’t plan to have any work-related activities at the event. To further support the non-work nature of the event, hold it off-site and outside of regular business hours, and allow employees to bring a guest.
  • Set expectations around respectful behavior and encourage employees to drink responsibly. Remind employees that company policies, including harassment and other conduct policies, apply at the event.
  • Have a plan to ensure that no minors or visibly intoxicated attendees are served alcohol. If possible, hire professional servers (or hold the event at a staffed facility) who will, as part of their job, politely refuse to serve anyone who they perceive has had enough to drink.

At the Event

  • Provide ample food and non-alcoholic beverages, both for safety reasons and so non-drinkers know you've given them consideration.
  • Offer a cash bar where employees purchase the alcohol. This will reduce the likelihood of a claim that the employer provided alcohol directly to employees. It will also reduce consumption.
  • Provide employees with a set number of drink tickets so that each attendee is limited in the number of alcoholic drinks they will be served.
  • Plan for how employees who have been drinking will get home. This may involve providing taxis or public transit options at no cost to the employees, arranging for group transportation, or encouraging employees to designate a driver at the beginning of the event.
  • Even if you don’t want or plan to provide taxi service, don’t think twice about calling and paying for one if an intoxicated employee has no way home other than driving themselves. To facilitate this, someone from management can be designated to stay until the end and maintain their own sobriety to ensure that everyone gets home safe.

While these steps will not eliminate all the risks, they can help reduce liability and help your employees celebrate the year and their achievements safely and responsibly.

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Kyle joined us after six years of freelance writing and editing. He has worked with book publishers, educational institutions, magazines, news and opinion websites, successful business leaders, and non-profit organizations. His book, a memoir about grief and hope, was published by Loyola Press in 2013.

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