Office parties: Think beyond the venue and food

November 29, 2021

Holiday parties are a great way to boost morale and show appreciation to employees. Nevertheless, there are a few general considerations that employers should be aware of, notwithstanding the current pandemic environment, when considering how to throw their office party this season.

You’ve been overserved

Many organizations will serve alcohol at a holiday party, which can lead to employees drinking too much and can lead to inappropriate behavior, which may violate a business’s personnel policy.

In addition, some states have enacted what are called “dram shop” laws or social-host laws which, depending on the statute, can make those responsible for providing alcohol liable for incidents when someone has been overserved.

Thus, while the holiday party is a time for employees to have fun and enjoy themselves, employers should keep an eye on their employees’ alcohol consumption while hosting the party. There are many ways that businesses can help limit alcohol consumption during the holiday party, including issuing drink tickets, as well as limiting the type of alcohol served at the event.

Further, the time leading up to the party is a good opportunity to refresh employees’ memories about your business’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and remind them that they are encouraged to have a good time, but they still are expected to conduct themselves appropriately.

Mandatory attendance

Holiday parties can create pay and compensable time issues for your agency. The general rule is, if you’re made to party, you have to be paid to party. Thus, businesses that make attendance at the holiday party mandatory would have to pay hourly employees for attending it. Consistent with that, hours spent at the party also would be considered hours worked for purposes of calculating overtime.

Workers’ compensation considerations

Employers should make sure that employees don’t injure themselves while they are enjoying the party as it could implicate the business’s workers’ compensation policy. Some of the factors relevant to whether it would be a covered injury include whether the party had mandatory attendance, and the extent of company sponsorship.

Thus, when planning a holiday party, employers will want to make sure to keep employees’ safety in mind. Things like dance competitions, or other activities might sound fun for employees, but it is important to acknowledge the risks associated with those activities as well.

The pandemic

Finally, while COVID-19 concerns may be waning as vaccination rates increase and employees return to their offices, businesses should take appropriate precautions when considering hosting in-person events this holiday season.

Large organizations may consider having mini, departmental holiday parties to facilitate social distancing, awarding larger discretionary bonuses in lieu of a holiday party, or holding virtual parties.

Virtual holiday parties have grown in popularity as businesses adapt to the changing needs of their organization. Many organizations have implemented unique and engaging virtual activities to bring employees together in a different way that does not increase employees’ risk of contracting or spreading the virus.

For those organizations that want to host a safe, in-person celebration, their employees’ vaccination status may play a role in that decision. Organizations that implement a mandatory vaccine policy with full employee participation may be able to an in-person holiday party with few modifications.

In other cases, while grouping an employee’s vaccination status in with the well-settled protected classes is still up for debate, the safest approach from a human resources perspective is to organize the event assuming everyone (vaccinated and unvaccinated) will participate. Therefore, depending on the circumstances, additional safety precautions such as wearing masks, social distancing, or holding the event outdoors still may need to be observed.

However, an employer decides to celebrate with its employees, taking the time to show appreciation for the work that employees have done all year helps to boost morale and spirits during the holiday season.

Alex Nadal
Engage PEO

Alex Nadal is assistant general counsel and human resources consultant at Engage PEO.

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