Family Office Holiday Parties: What You Should Know

Date: Dec 05 2016

Kasey Mueller

Not to be a total Scrooge, but I would be remiss if I didn't raise a cautionary holiday season human capital reminder that your family office holiday party can expose you to increased employer liability. You should begin planning now regarding the policy and communication efforts that will ensure a safe and productive holiday season for your family office.

Office Parties Gone Wrong

While the intent of hosting a holiday party for your family office is to revel in good cheer together, you should be aware that your celebration poses several liability risks. I recommend you simply plan ahead to minimize the possibility of criminal or civil penalties.

  • Alcohol is one of the most common causes of trouble at office parties. Case law is filled with examples of holiday party overindulgence, leading to drunk driving, falls, alcohol poisoning or inappropriate remarks. If you are serving alcohol at your family office events, carefully draft policies addressing appropriate behavior, and encourage employees to drink responsibly.
  • Some states impose "social host" laws on employers or other individuals who serve alcohol to guests who cause injury or damage after a party.
  • Alcohol-related liability doesn't arise solely from drunk-driving incidents; employees have also attempted to sue employers for slip-and-fall injuries at parties.
  • An employer is liable, under certain conditions, for any injuries arising in the course of employment. But an employer is not responsible when the injury arises out of voluntary participation in an off-duty social activity that is not part of the employee's duties.

You can minimize the liability risks by making clear to your staff that attendance at the holiday party is strictly voluntary, and is in no way a requirement of employment. You should also avoid "work-related" activities at holiday parties, such as networking with clients, which might make your employees think their attendance is required.

Sexual Harassment Claims

While the law offers employers some protections from alcohol-related injuries and damages stemming from holiday parties, the same cannot be said about claims of sexual harassment.

As alcohol loosens inhibitions, the risk that a joke, comment or action will spur a sexual harassment or hostile work environment claim goes up.

You should remind your employees before an event that although it's a party, it's still a business function, and that they are expected to act professionally.

Ensure your leadership team's sexual harassment training is up-to-date, and that your management team knows the same protections that are required in your office also apply to all employer-sponsored parties.

Wage and Hour Implications

An article by FOX advisory member Seyfarth Shaw highlights some little known—but still important—wage and hour tips regarding holiday office parties, including:

  • Make attendance at the holiday party entirely voluntary and convey that message to employees with unwavering clarity.
  • Consider scheduling the party during regular working hours when nonexempt employees are paid anyway.
  • To the extent attendance is required, publish the hours of the party and enforce them.
  • Neither ask nor permit nonexempt employees to prepare for and/or work at the party outside regular work hours.

I truly enjoy a great holiday office party, and I am by no means an Anti-Party Grinch. However, a little preparation goes a long way toward keeping your celebration from turning into a "No good deed goes unpunished" scenario.

Happy Holidays!