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Liability, discrimination issues for holiday parties?

By: Matt Volke//December 10, 2010

Liability, discrimination issues for holiday parties?

By: Matt Volke//December 10, 2010//

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iStock image used with permission.

Businesses have to put the holly in holidays rather than the Christ in Christmas.

Office holiday parties are a regular occurrence this time of year, but businesses have to stay neutral on having religion associated with events and be cautious of liability issues with employees.

On the flip side, employees need to watch their behavior at parties — especially when alcohol is involved because anything done at a party is on company time.

“Those social things are part of liabilities — social events, like softball teams are arising out of and in the course of employment. From a workers comp perspective, these events are considered work,” said Stephanie Caffera, a partner in the labor and employment group of Nixon Peabody LLP.

“Normal work conduct rules apply, as do sexual harassment [rules]. That can become an issue with a holiday party, where people are relaxed and social, and particularly where alcohol is involved, and their inhibitions are not there and their judgment is lapsed.”

It’s hard to miss the obnoxious drunk at the office party, and more than not, management notices. A social gaffe at the holiday party can linger throughout an employee’s tenure. Nine out of 10 executives say workers’ office-party behavior affects career advancement, according to a recent survey by the California-based staffing firm The Creative Group.

When the senior-level managers in the survey were asked about the extent to which they thought an employee’s behavior at an office holiday party could affect advancement possibilities, 44 percent said “greatly” and 48 percent said “somewhat.” Only 8 percent said “not at all.”

According to the survey, 14 percent of employees say they know someone who has been fired as a result of bad behavior at a holiday party, according to a separate survey by staffing firm Adecco.

“People who are drunk try to get physical … say things they wouldn’t normally say, make sexual proposition or sexually charged language they never would in the office,” Caffera said. “The biggest message for an employer is to consider whether to serve alcohol.”

Caffera said companies should consider whether to serve alcoholic beverages at all, and if they do, should consider a drink limit. Another option is to hire a bartender.

“If an employee is serving drinks, friends will over-serve friends,” Caffera said. “A neutral, trained bartender is less likely to over-serve people.”

Companies also have to take into consideration the liability they take on when serving drinks. If an employee has too much to drink and gets into a car accident or hurts someone, the company could be sued. A way around that is offering taxi service and ensuring designated drivers are available. If it’s at a hotel, companies can arrange for discounted rooms, Caffera said.

“You can certainly have fun, you just have to be responsible,” she said.

Nixon Peabody hosted a casino night this month for its holiday party. The firm hired a company to set up casino games, and employees played with chips that could be cashed in for raffle tickets that were used for prizes. Alcohol was served, and the firm hired a bartender, Caffera said.

Most companies are having holiday parties, despite a bad economy, Caffera said. A survey from the National Association of Catering Executives shows that 52 percent of those queried believe the corporate holiday party will make a comeback this year. That’s 22 points higher than last year, when only 30 percent said the holiday party would rebound.

Of those who took the survey, 44 percent said that they are seeing an increase in clients planning holiday parties this year, whereas last year that figure was only 18 percent.

The total number of unemployed throughout all industries was 15.1 million in November, bringing the overall unemployment rate to 9.8 percent — up from 9.6 percent in each of the last three months, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Religion at the office

There are 228.2 million adults in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Of those, 173.4 million are of a Christian faith, Catholic being the largest group with more than 57 million. A total of 2.7 million are Jewish, the largest non-Christian group, and 1.3 million are Muslims. There are 34 million people who consider themselves to not have a religion or are atheist or agnostic.

It seems strange to have people collected to celebrate holidays based on religious tradition and not mention religion, but Caffera said that’s exactly what companies are required to do. To include one religion and not another is discrimination, Caffera said.

“You have a diverse workforce, with people with a variety of religious traditions or no religious traditions at all,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a social event that is social and welcoming, and where everyone has a good time.”

She said it would be very difficult to celebrate all religions and treat everyone equally — not to mention there are those that have no faith or religion.

“I suppose you could have a company that celebrates every holiday… but that would be a little excessive,” Caffera said.

But that’s exactly the kind of culture Nazareth College has tried to create. The school encourages all employees to express their holiday traditions in their private space. One employee could set up a nativity scene while the next puts up Kwanzaa candles in the Kinara. The school wants to celebrate diversity, said Lynne Staropoli Boucher, director of the Center for Spirituality at Nazareth College.

“In America, Christians are in the majority. But in the work place, not everyone is in the Christian majority. Whether it’s right or not, a lot of Christians feel offended or left out,” Starpoli Boucher said. “It’s hard to go neutral. I think it’s good to go multi-faith. It’s not all or nothing. I think there’s a great happy medium. … It’s a celebration of diversity rather than nothing.”

Starpoli Boucher said the college-wide holiday events are neutral. The school’s last two presidents have been Jewish, she said, and that helped spark some dialogue about diversity and multi-faith programs.

“Instead of ignoring and neutralizing it all, we invite people into dialogue and discovery,” she said.

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