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Suggested Employer Guidelines for Holiday Parties

Many organizations have some sort of a seasonal celebration. One of the most common concerns is whether to serve alcohol. The legal issue is whether employers are liable if employees subsequently drive under the influence, causing an accident that injures themselves or others.

The law on this issue varies from state to state. However, some general guidelines can be gleaned from court cases. The greatest exposure to employers is if they serve minors. If minors drive under the influence of alcohol served to them by employers, there is a substantial likelihood of employer “social host” liability if those minors are involved in accidents. The result is less clear if the employee is an adult. In some states, “social host” liability is restricted to the service of alcohol to minors. However, even in those states in which social host liability generally is restricted to minors, the case law often leaves open the possibility that employers potentially may be held liable. Moreover, even if and/or where there is no potential for legal liability with regard to adults, there are moral considerations. It would be hard to sleep at night if you knew that a serious or fatal accident involving one of your employees might have been avoided had reasonable steps been taken to limit the consumption of alcohol.

Obviously, the safest approach, from a legal perspective, is to supply no alcohol. However, this may not be practical or desirable. Where alcohol is provided, the following guidelines should help to minimize the employer’s risk:

  • • Make clear in pre-party communications that minors cannot drink and that if minors do drink, they may be terminated. Ask those who dispense the alcohol to keep an eye out for those who look too young to drink and to card individuals if they have any doubt.
  • • Make clear in pre-party communications that employees must limit their consumption so as to avoid being under the influence. Also make it clear that you don’t expect anyone to drive who is under the influence.
  • • Have someone serve alcohol, rather than permitting employees to serve themselves. This not only gives the servers (the number of which should be limited) the opportunity to flag employees who drink too much, but it also may deter employees from pouring too many drinks in the first instance.
  • • Consider establishing a maximum number of drinks that individuals can have. Tickets won’t work because individuals can give away their tickets. Consider a fluorescent stamp on an employee’s hand in exchange for a drink, limiting the number of stamps an employee can receive.
  • • Make cab vouchers available that employees can obtain without going to a manager. While a few employees may abuse the privilege, it’s a small risk to take compared to the bigger risk it may help to avoid.
  • • Ask certain managers to keep their eyes and ears open for individuals who are visibly intoxicated. Intoxicated individuals should be asked for their car keys. If they refuse, consider calling the police. If you warn employees in advance that this is the course of action you will take, you strengthen your legal position by demonstrating your diligence.
  • • Serve plenty of non-alcoholic beverages and lots of food.