"U.S. Supreme Court decisions have held that employers may be liable for acts of sexual harassment and discrimination committed by supervisory employees," said Rob Hunter, manager of the Charlotte, N.C., office of Marsh, a risk advisor and insurance broker. "So employers need to monitor their employment practices closely at all times -- and the holiday parties are no exception."
Marsh, which works with a number of employers to reduce the risk of employment lawsuits, advises taking the following steps to ensure that holiday parties are enjoyable for all employees and risks are minimized for the employer:
- Watch the venue. Employees have brought lawsuits against firms whose local offices have held parties at inappropriate locations.
- Check accessibility. Before deciding on a site for a party, make sure it''s accessible to any employees with disabilities or special needs.
- Restrict alcohol consumption. Work with the caterer or restaurant to limit the number of alcoholic beverages served to employees.
- Brief supervisors. Remind supervisors that office parties are an extension of the workplace and that they need to respond to discrimination or harassment situations as they would occur during the course of business.
- Assess ability of attendees to get home safely. Appoint a company supervisor to consider whether an employee or other attendee can drive or otherwise get home safely, and make appropriate travel arrangements, if necessary.
- Investigate all complaints. Failure to respond to any complaint can lead to greater liability than the alleged misconduct.
"Courts consider holiday parties to be part of the work environment," said Hunter. "Employers are held responsible for condoning illicit or inappropriate behavior that creates a hostile environment."
by Virginia Sutcliffe