4 Recommendations for Planning Your Work Holiday Party to Help Avoid Common Legal Hurdles

Are you looking forward to an in-person corporate celebration this holiday season? So are we! Since many of us took time off from celebrations or chose virtual options in 2020 and 2021, it’s probably a good idea to review this list to help evaluate legal considerations as the festivities draw near. Keep reading for four tips designed to help protect your employees and your company while you celebrate.

4 Recommendations for Planning Your Company’s Work Holiday Party

1. Clearly communicate attendance at your work holiday party is voluntary—and stick to it.

The classification of a business activity as voluntary or mandatory impacts factors such as: wages for non-exempt employees, workers’ compensation benefits related to the event, and inclusivity (e.g., enabling employees with religious reasons or otherwise to not attend). Simply stating the event is voluntary on an invitation doesn’t completely protect your business from potential liability. Pressure exerted by members of management, even verbally, can imply required attendance and cause the gathering to be legally classified as mandatory.

Ideally your invitation explicitly states attendance is voluntary; if not, it’s probably wise to convey this information in writing (see tip #2 regarding pre-celebration memos). Remind your management team that attendance is voluntary and provide guidance for responding to employees with questions or concerns. Additionally, don’t plan to share any important company announcements at the holiday party; instead, choose an appropriate time during normal working hours to avoid potentially blurring attendance requirement lines.

2. Circulate an internal pre-celebration memo a few days in advance of the festivities, highlighting key event details and company policies.

A pre-celebration memo creates an opportunity to remind employees of important event details and announce any additional details or changes. For example, the holiday celebration invitation might have only mentioned ride sharing options will be provided; while a pre-celebration memo can explain the process for using a specific company promo code or expensing afterward.

It can be helpful to explain or remind employees that who you are with rather than where you are determines status as a company activity – and, therefore, when corporate policies are still applicable. Consider specifically mentioning a few key policies, such as Professional Standards/Dress Code, Sexual Harassment, and Social Media. Reminding your team that the holiday celebration is subject to these same company policies can go a long way in helping to avoid issues, but also make sure to iterate the gathering is voluntary, outside business hours (if applicable) and does not include work functions so there is no misunderstanding that the gathering could be deemed compensable under the law. 

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Holiday Bonus Tip: If you don’t yet have one in place, consider adding a Social Gatherings Policy to your 2023 employee handbook that explicitly states all company policies are applicable at company-sponsored social gatherings.

3. Embrace inclusivity past wording changes.

Recent years have seen much discussion around referring to “holiday” parties instead of “Christmas” parties. However, inclusivity practices should be broadly applied to include party themes, decorations, and dietary restrictions/needs. That doesn’t mean your decorations have to exclude Christmas trees, for example, but it’s important to host an event that conveys overall inclusiveness and avoids any potential “tone deaf” snafus.

4. Take specific risk management steps for any corporate celebrations serving alcohol.

Work holiday parties typically celebrate the team and year’s accomplishments, but they’ve also become a bit notorious as potential venues of “bad” behavior and incidents — typically due to overconsumption of alcohol. Has anyone else seen the semi-recent movie Office Christmas Party starring Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, and Kate McKinnon?! If not, the film hilariously memorializes some of the worst party ideas to consider with highlights including sledding down the multi-floor staircase (which also happened to have a 90 degree turn), using strands of Christmas lights as a Tarzan-style swing from an upper level floor, and jousting matches with Christmas trees.

For both employee safety and company liability, corporate gatherings serving alcohol should consider how best to mitigate excessive alcohol consumption for their specific celebration and culture. Following the voluntary theme of our above #1 tip, first ensure alcohol consumption is voluntary, not mandatory – both in policy and in practice. Offer plenty of water and other non-alcoholic drink choices – soda, tea, lemonade or similar work perfectly. Some companies choose to also provide a festive “mocktail” option.

Next, for guests consuming alcohol, consider mitigation strategies for limiting alcohol intake by implementing one or more tactics, such as:

  • utilizing a specific number of drink tickets per guest.
  • hosting an event with a shorter duration (or a specific, limited period of alcohol availability).
  • choosing a time during daylight hours (e.g., lunch or afternoon) or a weekday evening, when most guests will naturally drink less.
  • limiting alcoholic options to only beer and wine due to lower blood alcohol concentrations than their liquor counterparts.
  • hiring professional bartenders, who are trained to reduce the risk of overconsumption, to serve any alcohol (which is also a best practice from a corporate liability perspective).

Then evaluate additional safety measures. Examples include:

    • serving plenty of food, especially starch-heavy choices that will slow alcohol absorption. If you’re serving a meal that ends prior to the expiration of the party – and the alcohol serving will also continue, consider asking your caterer to offer post-meal snacks, too.
    • concluding alcohol serving an hour before the celebration officially ends, while strategically encourage your party goers to stay for that hour – potentially by raffling prizes, serving dessert, or playing group games.
    • providing reimbursement for ride-sharing options to safely transport guests home. It’s helpful to announce this service within the invitation and include a reminder within a pre-celebration memo (detailed in tip #2 above).

And finally, a few miscellaneous “stocking stuffer” work holiday party tips, if you will.

  • Also apply these same recommendations to any departmental celebrations.
  • Don’t forget about COVID-19 compliance, which may require vaccination or testing before attendance.
  • Just say “no” to mistletoe, replacing the water in the jugs of those office coolers with tequila, offering opportunities to sit on Santa’s lap, and…most everything you witnessed in the inane festivities featured in the Office Christmas Party movie.

If you have any questions about your upcoming work holiday party festivities or are seeking suggestions to mitigate any risks associated with it, contact our team of MSN attorneys. We are here to help you prospectively check that list of proactive, sound strategies for a successful and safe corporate holiday party so you can focus on celebrating your team and the season. So here’s to helping MSN’s corporate clients plan for only Christmas trees and other holiday decorations to be “lit” at office parties this year!



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