How Festive Is Too Festive? Tone from the Top Is Key to Avoiding Trouble

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and many companies are deciding to join in the festivities by hosting a holiday party. Although wine or an open bar might seem like a good way to celebrate, employers should be aware that they are on the hook for any mishaps. In this episode of The Workplace podcast, employment law expert Jennifer Shaw joins CalChamber Executive Vice President and General Counsel Erika Frank to discuss what employers can do to avoid the problems that arise when employees drink too much at a company party.

With the help of a clip from the movie “Elf,” Frank and Shaw kick off the podcast by reviewing the most obvious hazard of providing alcohol at a company party: normal employees can turn into drunk employees with impaired judgement. But that’s not to say that alcohol is completely off limits.

“I’m not going to sit on this podcast and say ‘You should have a holiday party without any drinking.’ Or ‘Don’t allow anyone to come to the holiday party and have a glass of wine.’ That’s not what it’s about here. What is…critical is finding out where’s the line,” Shaw says. “…What are people’s expectations going to be?”

Oftentimes, people simply forget that that they’re still at work, Shaw tells Frank. This is why, she says, it is important that companies figure out what they’re willing to tolerate and determine what is acceptable behavior. Employers should clearly communicate to their employees that the party is a company party, with standard company rules.

Someone Needs to Be the Parent

Employers should know that because a company holiday party is a company-sponsored event, employers may be held liable for any injury or harm that may arise out of excessive drinking, Shaw cautions.

Some companies have sought to limit how much employees drink by handing out vouchers that grant only one or two drinks per employee. This is still problematic, however, because workers can give other employees their unused vouchers, and the company can still end up with drunk employees, Shaw says.

And if employees become too unruly, Shaw reminds employers that they can do something, such as asking an employee to leave and calling the employee a cab/ride.

“Somebody needs to be the parent,” Frank says.

Gifts, Other Substances

At parties where gifts are exchanged, some employers may find it easy to gift employees a bottle of wine. Problems may arise if employees then open the bottle of wine and consume it at the party. Also problematic is the availability of CBD (cannabidiol) and marijuana-infused food products. Since marijuana is legal in California, some people may decide to give gifts containing marijuana at company parties.

While employers cannot predict every scenario or outcome, Shaw says, setting clear expectations early on can discourage unwanted behavior. For example, if an employer is giving out bottles of wine, the employer should emphasize that the wine is to be consumed at home.

“You want to bring a bottle of wine? Great, but you’re not going to be falling down drunk at the party, and when you are there’s a consequence,” Shaw says.

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