Milder Office Holiday Party Was Inevitable

The office Christmas party has lost a lot of its pizzazz, so much so that it's no longer known by that term. Some of its evolution is budgetary, but a combination of factors related to legal liability, employment law, and religious sensitivity, most of which can be boiled down to misdeeds of sloppy imbibers, have led to an era where employers are ultra cautious with their holiday events.


Social exposure

For start-up businesses that have added employees, or those that plan to, these aren't trivial considerations. The potential liability stemming from an employee who drinks too much at a company social event – at any time of year – and then causes a drunk driving-related accident or violates sexual harassment laws can devastate a small business.

The incident that drew the most attention to this point occurred during the 1998 holiday season, when an employee of Universal Metrics in Menomonee Falls got drunk after collecting numerous drink tickets at the company's off-premises holiday party, got in a car, and killed himself and a 25-year-old mother of three in what former Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher called a "horrendous collision."

Universal Metrics was not criminally charged, even though an inquest jury believed the company shared culpability and recommended that criminal charges be filed. Bob Gregg, a partner in the Boardman Law Firm, said that case established the general rule that a company is not liable for acts stemming from employee drunk driving if the event is held off company property, is not on the way to or from work, and is voluntary.

A business generally is immune if a company social event is held off-site and there is no pressure to attend, but employers have taken additional steps. More companies are limiting the number of drinks to two or less, holding celebrations at places where bartenders are trained to stop serving drinks, providing hotel rooms, and offering rides within a reasonable radius. As a result, Gregg sees more issues related to sexual or other types of harassment than issues related to drunk driving.

These rules apply for any company social event, which Gregg defines as any gathering, even after-hours drinks with clients, that is within the scope of employment. "People who work together and bowl together, that's not a company event," he said. "Is the Friday afternoon happy hour a company event or not? That depends on whether business is done there."

Religious sensitivity is another factor that is changing the holiday party. Diverse companies comprised of employees of different faiths have taken steps to be more inclusive, opting for names like Winter Gala for the holiday soiree. There has been a societal backlash to the de-emphasis on the word Christmas, but using a religiously neutral name is more acceptable in companies with different sensibilities to consider. "Know your employee makeup," advised Mike Leibundgut, president of the Greater Madison Area Society of Human Resource Management. "If you have a small company and all your employees are Catholic, having an office Christmas party is not going to make anyone feel excluded."

In any event, make sure the celebration is voluntary, that there is no pressure to come or not to come, and that there is no retribution against people who decline. It would help to have someone in management monitor the event to make sure things don't get out of hand.

Employers might also consider not serving alcohol to anyone under their employ (have them buy it instead). Be extra cautious with employees who are minors, and even issue behavioral reminders via email. "You've also got to think about the worst-case scenario," Leibundgut counseled "What's the worst thing that can happen if we do this or that?"

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