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Limiting Potential Liability From Your Office Holiday Party

Everyone enjoys a good holiday party. It's a way to show your staff that you appreciate their hard work this year and to get everyone revved up for next year. Yet sometimes, things get out of hand. Certain poor choices could mean liability for your business.

You can't eliminate all liability risks, but you should plan for potential problems before you hold an office event:

Involve your staff in planning for the event

If you haven't already planned this year's event, find out when and where would be welcome by your staff. Would they attend on a weeknight? Would they come if the party were held in the office over lunch hour? Are they looking forward to it being a party for staff and partners, or would they be just as happy with an event involving clients? These decisions can have a big impact on what people expect and how they act at the event.

A daytime or weekday party could involve less drinking, for example. Having clients present could emphasize that the event is work-related. Make sure any liability risk is worth the reward.

Keep misunderstandings from becoming sexual harassment

When organizing a holiday event, setting expectations for behavior is crucial -- and management should act as an example. This should include setting expectations around alcohol, dress and behavior at the party. Make it clear that this is a workplace event and that attendees are expected to behave professionally.

Explain that people can dress festively, but not in a way that would be inappropriate for the workplace. Make sure that everyone understands that a flirtation could be taken wrong and result in discomfort or hurt feelings. It's best for everyone to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Encourage everyone to speak up if lines do get crossed. This is your event and you must respond appropriately to any complaints.

Serving alcohol comes with some risk

Many employers opt to serve alcohol at holiday events, and that can be fine. However, make sure that your catering service has the appropriate licenses and insurance and provides sufficient trained staff. No one should be served if they already appear intoxicated. You may wish to limit the number of drinks each person can have or limit the alcohol to beer and wine. Or, limit the period during which alcohol will be served.

In Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., you generally can't be held responsible for the behavior of your party guests, even if they are over-served. However, it would be a tragedy if someone were hurt due to drunk driving after your event. Consider providing a shuttle or paying for taxis.

If you have specific questions about liability at office parties, contact an experienced employment law attorney.

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