Human Resources and Law

Mistletoe, bonuses and booze: recipe for a holiday lawsuit?

December 11, 2015
Text Size:
Office party hanky panky
Too much alcohol and illicit hanky-panky are a couple of red flags to watch for during work-related holiday parties.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year — unless you are in charge of planning your office holiday party.

Not only will you face a hundred little questions: Lunch or dinner? Appetizers or plated meal? Relaxed formal or smart casual? You must also contend with that age-old question: What would the lawyers say?

If you scan enough HR or legal articles on this topic, you might be inclined to shelve your holiday party entirely in favor of a nice red envelope with a Starbucks gift card. Most of these articles make it sound like having a holiday party with alcohol is the legal equivalent of storming the beaches of Normandy. You may or may not die, but you will assuredly face staggering losses.

This is probably why lawyers are rarely invited to holiday parties. In reality, however, it’s not that dramatic. You can certainly host a fun holiday party (even one with alcohol) without facing a bevy of lawsuits on Monday morning. You just need to be smart about it.

With that in mind, here are six ways to avoid a lawsuit arising out of your holiday party:

Don’t do business there. Why, you might ask? Well, for starters, it’s lame. Leave the office behind and enjoy the company of your colleagues. In addition, if you do conduct business and employees are obligated to attend, you are required to pay your hourly employees for their time. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t give a speech thanking everyone for their contributions over the past year. By all means, do that — just avoid segueing into what everyone needs to do on the Johnson account next quarter.

Don’t YOU serve alcohol. Of course, the most prudent legal advice would be to not have alcohol at all. The reality, however, is that alcohol is going to be a part of a lot of holiday parties this season. If that’s the case for your business, you just need to make sure you are not the ones serving it. Go to a restaurant or hire a properly insured professional bartender or caterer to handle the drinks. Otherwise, you could be on the hook for an employee’s subsequent bad behavior and its results.

Encourage responsible drinking. An open bar from 5 p.m. to midnight can be a recipe for disaster. Instead, consider giving out drink tickets (think 2, not 12) and cab vouchers. Also, schedule the party for a limited period of time. After that, the party crowd can adjourn to one of Grand Rapids’ many fine bars or restaurants for a post-party — and use a cab voucher to get safely home.

Don’t do stupid things. If you are thinking about hanging mistletoe, playing Santa and encouraging employees to sit in your lap, or mixing slow dances into the music lineup, you need to cancel your party now. Right now.

Don’t ignore bad behavior. If someone drinks too much or starts getting handsy with the interns, step in and stop them in a non-confrontational manner. Turning a blind eye to bad behavior could create an even larger headache for them — and you — the next day.

About those holiday bonuses … Did you know any bonus you choose to give that is based on production needs to be grossed up for overtime worked by hourly employees? As such, if you are giving a holiday bonus to your team, make sure it is discretionary and not based on work performed.

That wasn’t so bad was it? With these tips in mind, you can go forward with your holiday party and not worry about the repercussions. Maybe next year, you’ll even invite your lawyer.

Jonathan P. Kok is a partner at Warner Norcross & Judd LLP who chairs the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Group. He’s heard it all when it comes to holiday parties — and he’s even been to a few. You can reach him at 

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus