summer office party

By Laura Kerekes

Holding a summer office party is a great opportunity to get together and celebrate as a team, and can have a significant impact on employee engagement and morale. But there are potential employer liabilities for holding company parties, especially where alcohol is served or at locations where employees participate in games or near bodies of water. A commonly asked employer question is:

If we’re having a summer get-together, should we or should we not serve alcohol and what else should we think about to lessen our risk?

Party Suggestions to Reduce Employer Liability

Here are some practical tips (not legal advice) to help make your employer-sponsored events safer and possibly lessen the potential “hidden costs.”

  • The party is an employer-sponsored event. As the employer, you may be responsible for whatever happens at the party and even for post-party events.
  • Consult with your insurance broker to determine potential liabilities or risks relating to the event location or activities, such as swimming, boating, team sports, etc.
  • Follow your stated employee policies.
  • Determine upfront how you will handle the alcohol question, especially as it relates to where and when you will be holding the party.
    • If your policies do not permit drinking either on your company’s premises or during work hours and you plan to have the party at the office as a part of the workday, don’t serve alcohol.
    • If you decide that alcohol must be served and your party is off-site and after hours, consider limiting alcohol consumption by:
      • Having a cash bar or a short period of time for drinking before food is served;
      • Providing each employee with a limited number of “drink tickets”;
      • Having a good selection of soft nonalcoholic drinks available; and
      • Closing the bar well before the party ends.
    • If you don’t want to place any limitations on drinking, make sure your bartender(s) know to check IDs for anyone apparently under age 30 and have the authority to “shut off” anyone who is intoxicated.
    • Arrange for designated drivers and consider offering incentives to employees who volunteer to be designated drivers.
    • Consider arranging transportation for intoxicated employees or making hotel arrangements for them.
    • Serve foods rich in starch and protein, which stay in the stomach longer and slow the absorption of alcohol in the bloodstream.
  • All policies in your employee handbook remain in force. Even during the party, racial or sexual jokes, gossiping about office relationships, as well as unwelcome touching of the body parts of another are still not permitted.
    • Consider re-distributing copies of your company’s sexual harassment policy before the party takes place.
    • Set a tone of moderation before company parties and remind your supervisors to set a good example.
    • Thoroughly investigate every complaint, since failure to do so can lead to greater liability than the alleged misconduct.
  • Review your insurance liability policies with your insurance broker before the party. Typically, party-related injuries are not considered compensable under workers’ compensation, because parties are not deemed work-related. There are steps you can take to make the party appear less “work-related,” such as not requiring employees to attend, making the party a family affair, etc.

Finally, when it comes to rewarding winning teams by giving gifts, keep gifts in good taste, consider the tax implications of gifts and don’t show preferential treatment.

Laura Kerekes is ThinkHR Corporation’s Chief Knowledge Officer and leads the human resources service delivery and content teams. She works with our clients on complicated human resources and management issues as well as regularly writing articles and speaking to groups regarding management and human resources best practices.