Employment Law 101: 'Tis the Season for Holiday Parties and End of Year Bonuses
By John Mavros Attorney at Law, Partner, Fisher & Phillips, LLP | December 20, 2015
Co-authored by Aston Riley, Associate, Fisher & Phillips, LLP
It’s that time of year again—time to don ugly sweaters and drink rum-filled egg nog while socializing with co-workers at the company holiday party. This is also the time for heightened instances of sexual harassment and liability surrounding overtime pay and holiday bonuses. Around this time of joy and cheer, employers face an increased risk for employment law mishaps. This article provides a quick overview along with tips to make it through the season unscathed.
Now that it is the end of the year, businesses want to celebrate a productive year and reward those who made it possible, often with a party for everyone to relax, cut loose, and have a good time. As always, throwing a large social event brings with it inherent risks. People can sometimes imbibe too much alcohol, or forget about the company’s code of conduct, which can lead to an awkward conversation the following Monday at best, and a lawsuit and potential catastrophe at worst.
This holiday season, here are some ideas to consider implementing when planning that end of the year bash:
- “Not-so-Open” Bar - Alcohol consumption is the most common reason for
holiday party mishaps and an “open bar” invites the opportunity for
overconsumption and potential headaches not just for the employee who had
one too many, but for the employer as well. Consider limiting consumption
by having a limited number of drink tickets or a cash bar.
- Other Limits on Consumption - Another way to limit consumption is to adjust
the type of alcohol served and the time for service. For example, consider
serving beer and wine only and no hard spirits. Also, businesses can limit
the time that service to only pre-dinner during a “cocktail hour” or only
hosting a bar for a limited period during the party.
- Leave it to the Pro’s - Hiring professional bartenders to handle
distribution of alcohol has its benefits—professionals have experience with
requiring identification for those that do not look substantially over
21-years-old as well as knowing when they should or should not serve someone
that has already had enough to drink. Also, having employees or supervisors
serving alcohol can impute liability for overserving directly to the
employer, and so this is a great way to add another layer of protection.
- Safety, Safety, Safety - Provide a taxi or other alternative driving service
for people leaving the party. If hosting employees at the home of a
supervisor or employer, there is potential liability if a party-goer leaves
the house drunk and gets behind the wheel. If hosting the event at a hotel
or other venue, offer complimentary or discounted rooms so attendees can
walk to their bed for the evening. Employers would do well to also provide
taxi vouchers or make arrangements with a ride-sharing service for
transportation to and from the party. Also, do not be afraid to ask for
volunteer designated drivers to help out with safety.
- Buddy System - Inviting a spouse or partner presents additional
accountability and can help keep inappropriate behavior to a minimum.
Spouses and significant others can also potentially provide another sober
(and hopefully safe) driver at the end of the night.
- Friendly Reminders - Although businesses want to encourage employees to
enjoy themselves for a productive year, a friendly reminder that this is not
a college fraternity party and violations of company policies or standards
can result in disciplinary action.
- Sponsor One Event - Avoid any “after-parties,” and supervisors especially
should not be attending any of these events to avoid any connection of
impropriety or misbehavior to the business.
- Consider Alternatives - If businesses want to avoid a lot of the headache or
hassle of a holiday party, consider an alternative such as donating what
would be spend on a party to charity, and encourage employees to participate
in the cause via a toy drive or gifts for families in need. Or consider
hosting a holiday luncheon at or near the hotel or office to reward
employees in a fun environment without the risks of alcohol.
- Party “Appropriately” - It can send the wrong message if the business throws
an extravagant and costly party followed by a round of layoffs starting
January 1, or worse, just after a recent round of layoffs when morale may be
taking a dip. Employees will wonder if the party was worth not having some
of their co-workers around to enjoy it with.
- “Working” the Party - As employers know, nonexempt employees must be paid
for all time spent working, but what they may not know is that required
attendance at employer-sponsored events may be time that must be
compensated. Similarly, nonexempt employees that are required to perform
tasks at the holiday party may need to be paid for time setting up or
cleaning up at the end of the night. Not only might this time require
compensation, but if it is work in excess of eight hours in a day or forty
in a week, it may require overtime premiums. To avoid this concern
altogether, make attendance of the party optional and hire a third-party or
let the venue hosting the party perform all the necessary services.
End of Year Bonuses
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