With the holidays approaching, many employers are planning their annual office parties. This year, however, many businesses are electing to skip the festivities. While the risk for liability is clearly heightened in the #MeToo era, there are steps employers can take to keep the tradition alive and protect their legal interests.

Employers Skipping Holiday Office Parties in 2018

This holiday season, 65 percent of businesses plan to hold a holiday party, according to a recent survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. That’s the lowest number since the height of the recession in 2009, when 62 percent of companies held holiday festivities.

Of respondents that are not hosting a party this year, almost 27 percent of companies reported they never hold company parties, while nearly 8 percent reported they are not holding a party this year for various reasons.

“The low number of corporate celebrations does not appear to be due to economic reasons. Companies are sitting on tax savings and generally report a thriving economy,” said Andrew Challenger, Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. The report speculates that the decline in holiday parties could be attributable to increasingly remote workforces and the desire to host parties during less busy times of year.

The survey results also confirm that the #MeToo movement is also playing a role. Of those companies that are having a party this year, nearly 58 percent reported they have addressed the #MeToo movement with their staff this year, 33 percent of which have addressed or will address this issue prior to the party. According to Challenger, fears about liability may also have caused many employers to forego parties altogether.

Avoiding Liability Risks at Holiday Parties

Throwing a holiday party can be an effective way to build comradery, boost morale, and recognize accomplishments. Unfortunately, the party can also be a source of liability. The two main risks often go hand in hand — inappropriate behavior and alcohol.

Sexual Harassment

When they are outside of the office environment, employees may feel more comfortable engaging in bad behavior that could be construed as sexual harassment. Therefore, it is important that employee handbooks or other documents make it clear that policies extend to social functions. Employees should also be encouraged to report incidents involving misconduct at workplace events, even if they occur outside of the office or outside normal business hours.

The holiday season is also a good time to remind employees what is and what is not considered acceptable behavior. For instance, while mistletoe is a Christmas tradition, it can be a lawsuit waiting to happen in an office environment, as an unwanted kiss could be grounds for a sexual harassment claim. Suggestive gifts and/or inappropriate gifts should also be prohibited. Managers and executives can also set the tone by exhibiting professional behavior.

Addressing sexual harassment is particularly important this year. Harassment suits are traditionally among the most frequent sources of employment liability for New York and New Jersey businesses. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment claims are on the rise, according to recent data by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). It recently reported that new charges of sexual harassment jumped by 12 percent in FY 2018, which is the first increase in eight years.

Serving Alcohol

Many companies serve alcohol at their holiday parties, which can increase the risks of inappropriate behavior. To reduce the risks that employees have too much holiday “cheer,” businesses may want to consider holding the event during the day, limiting employees to certain number of drink tickets, and serving ample amounts of food. While not related to sexual harassment, it is also always wise to ensure that employees can find a safe way home.

If you have any questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Gary S. Young, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work, at 201-806-3364.