We are now officially in the holiday season. While holiday parties are a great way to build morale and show appreciation for employees, these can also result in unexpected liability for employers if not done right. We have our top 5 tips for ensuring your company holiday party doesn’t turn into a nightmare.

Avoid serving or allowing alcohol in the workplace.

While having beer on tap may be a popular perk for many startups, and the holiday drink cart may be a fun holiday tradition, it comes as a surprise to many business owners that this is actually illegal in Washington! Washington’s WAC 296-800-11025 clearly states that employers “must prohibit alcohol and narcotics from [the] workplace, except in industries and businesses that produce, distribute, or sell alcohol and narcotic drugs” and, further, that employers “must prohibit employees under the influence of alcohol or narcotics from the worksite.” So, skip the hot buttered rum at the office and instead opt for sparkling apple cider and cognac-free eggnog. If your company is having a holiday party and wants to provide alcohol, we recommend hosting at a space that already holds a liquor license.

Don’t require attendance.

There are many reasons that employers should not require participation at a company holiday party. Employees may have faith-based reasons not to attend or may not be comfortable in social settings due to mental health concerns or anxiety. Additionally, because non-exempt employees must be compensated for all hours worked (including overtime) under federal and state wage and hour laws, this includes time spent at the party if attendance is required.  Finally, responsibility for employee misconduct could fall on the employer if the employee is acting within the scope of their employment.

Ensure the culture does not encourage overconsumption.

We’ve all heard stories of those employees who drink excessively and get themselves into precarious situations at work functions. But these stories can result in real liability for the employer if they are found to have acted negligently. Consider limiting alcohol consumption by using limited drink tickets, having a cash bar, not serving hard alcohol at all, implementing “last call” at least an hour before the end of the event. If you are providing alcohol, be sure also to provide plenty of food and non-alcoholic beverage options.

Provide safe transportation options.

Vicarious liability is just one of the many reasons you don’t want your employees driving after consuming alcohol at a holiday party. At a minimum, encourage employees to arrange carpools and to select a designated driver in advance of the event. Consider providing a transportation credit or otherwise subsidizing transportation costs through rideshare discounts or bus passes. 

Remind employees of the company’s code of conduct and best practices for work events.

Before the event, communicate to your employees the company’s policies on conduct at work functions and encourage managers to lead by example.

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