Christmas music was playing in the mall this past weekend…it’s official, the Holidays are here!  The Holidays are a great opportunity for your employees to celebrate and unwind after a long year.  The season can also bring employment issues including but not limited to claims of religious discrimination, sexual harassment and liability for your company.

Holiday parties seem to be the root of these problems:

(1)    Religious Discrimination – Not everyone celebrates Christmas or Hanukkah.  In EEOC v. Norwegian-American Hospital, a Muslim employee sued her employer in federal court in Illinois after, among other things, she was disciplined for failing to participate in Christmas activities.  The company eventually entered into a consent decree with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to settle the case for $40,000.

(2)    Sexual Harassment – Unfortunately, alcohol and sexual harassment claims usually come hand-in-hand.  For example, in Russ v. Van Scoyoc Associates, Inc., “several people became very intoxicated” at a company holiday party.  After the party, some of the employees, including the plaintiff, went to another bar to continue socializing.  At the bar, the plaintiff complained about unpleasant working conditions with the vice president of the company.  The vice president sympathized with the plaintiff and then made a number of “sexually explicit and offensive remarks…telling [the plaintiff] that he admired her breasts, that he wanted to have sex with her, that he wanted to perform oral sex upon her, and that ‘she could make more money working at Hooters’” than at the company.   Needless to say, after the plaintiff was let go, she sued the company for sexual harassment in federal court in D.C.  After years of litigation and dispositive motions, the parties settled the lawsuit.

(3)    Social Host Liability – If you are serving alcohol at your Holiday party, be aware that you can be liable for employees who consume too much alcohol and then get behind the wheel of a car. In Florida, Fla. Stat. § 768.125, individuals or companies that serve alcohol can be liable for injuries or damages caused by a drunk driver in two situations.  One, if the drunk driver is under the age of 21.  Or, two, if the drunk driver is known to be “habitually addicted to the use of any or all alcoholic beverages.”  Employers can also be liable for the actions of employees who have been drinking in a social context if the actions occur during the course and scope of employment, such as attending trade shows, entertaining clients/customers, etc.

Here are some pointers for a worry-free Holiday party:

(1)    Keep the party religion-neutral.  Attendance should be voluntary.

(2)    Limit the availability and consumption of alcohol.  Consider hiring professional bartenders (not supervisors) to serve alcohol and instruct them to report and/or stop serving anyone that they feel has consumed too much and underage employees.   Arrange for complimentary taxi service for any employee who feels he or she cannot drive home.

(3)    Remind employees that workplace rules still apply and misconduct during the party may result in disciplinary action.

(4)    Investigate complaints quickly.

(5)    Learn from past mistakes.