Dear Atty., How Do I Handle A Holiday Party, Alcohol and Sexual Discrimination

Party CCO

Dear Attorney:

I am in charge of planning our company’s holiday party. The owner of the company told me that he wants this year’s party to be, “better than ever” but then added that he wants to make sure that the company doesn’t get into any trouble. Please help. What types of issues should I be thinking about?


Bah Humbug

Dear Humbug:

While holiday parties can be a great occasion to celebrate with coworkers, they also pose several potential legal risks for employers. But, that doesn’t mean that the party will be awful. It just means that you need to be smart in your planning. Consider some of the following issues:

Be Careful With the Alcohol

Alcohol at holiday parties can be the source of much of the fun but definitely is the source of much of the evil. You should take steps to reduce the consumption of alcohol. Avoid open bars. Consider giving each attendee a limited number of “drink tickets.”  If you are having the party on-site, consider hiring professional bartenders; they are better trained to respond to guests who are consuming alcohol to excess. If you are planning on having a “cocktail hour” portion to the party, ensure that there are plenty of non-alcoholic beverage choices and that some food is served during the cocktail hour. Consider providing some form of entertainment to shift the focus away from alcohol to something else.

Avoiding Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Discrimination

Sexual harassment is probably the greatest employment law risk at holiday parties. Ditch the mistletoe. It seems to bring out the “creepy” in some people. You don’t want Bob in sales using mistletoe as an excuse to give Susie in accounting that kiss that she never wanted. Also consider inviting spouses and significant others. The risk of sexual harassment is greatly reduced under the watchful eye of spouses and significant others.

From a racial, national origin or religion standpoint, beware of holding functions at private clubs with restricted membership. In addition, rewarding employees with a gift at the end of the year may backfire if you don’t take into account other factors. For example, diabetics, recovering alcoholics or those adhering to religious dietary restrictions may not appreciate gifts of food or liquor.

Avoid Paying Your Employees to Party

If employees are made to think that attendance at the party is mandatory, it is possible that the time spent at the party could be compensable hours worked under the wage and hour laws. For non-exempt employees, this could result in your company being responsible for paying overtime for the time spent at the party. To avoid this, be sure to make clear to employees that attendance at the party is voluntary. Also, avoid asking employees to perform any functions at the party that might be to the benefit of your company. Inviting spouses and significant others also will underscore that the event is purely social, as opposed to being business related.

Minimize the Risk of Workers Compensation Liability

It is possible that workers’ compensation benefits may be available to employees who are injured during or because of an employer-sponsored event. To minimize this risk, be sure that employees know that there is no business purpose for the event and that attendance is not mandatory. Also consider avoiding activities at the event that could increase the likelihood of injury. The last thing you need is for Bill in the shipping department to tear his ACL doing the limbo.

Despite all of these concerns, the party still can be fun. The key to limiting your company’s liability lies in limiting the consumption of alcohol. From an employer’s standpoint, nothing good happens when employees get drunk and stupid.



The “Dear Atty.” column is aimed at answering employers’ legal questions that surround issues in human resources. Attorney Pete Albrecht of Albrecht Backer Labor & Employment Law, S.C. welcomes you to  for future editions of “Dear Atty.”

If you would like additional information about this topic, please contact Pete Albrecht. He is the president and a shareholder at Albrecht Backer Labor and Employment Law. Pete has represented employers for over 28 years and his law office is located in Madison, Wisconsin.