With Christmas and the New Year around the corner, many employers are planning their annual holiday parties. However, even with good intentions, holiday parties can expose employers to liability arising from alcohol consumption and poor decision making. The following cases are a reminder that the rules of the workplace still apply even while celebrating the most wonderful time of the year.

Decking the Halls Without Religious Discrimination

Holiday parties are a great way to build camaraderie, boost employee morale, and show employee appreciation. But employers should think twice about how these parties are arranged. For example, the employer in Chandler v. Infinity Ins. Grp., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 77378 (N.D. Ala. 2014) threw a Christmas party and made attendance mandatory for all employees. One of the company’s employees was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, a religion that forbids celebrations of religious holidays, birthdays, and other festivities.

The employee filed a law suit claiming religious discrimination and failure to make reasonable accommodations. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for sincerely held religious beliefs and practices. Ultimately the court in this case found in favor of the employer, but only because the employee did not give the employer notice of her need for an accommodation. Although the employer was aware of the employee’s religion, the employee did not request a specific religious accommodation in regard to the Christmas party. Had the employee requested to be absent from the Christmas party, and the employer denied this request, she would have likely prevailed on the claim.

Employers should consider throwing religion-neutral parties, like “holiday” or “New Year’s” parties. Employers should also make attendance voluntary or schedule parties after work hours. If attendance is mandatory or parties are held during work hours, any requests for religious accommodations, if reasonable, should be granted.

When to Let Dancer or Prancer Guide the Sleigh Home

Serving alcohol at holiday parties is common, but employers need to be smart about overconsumption. Like many employers, the employer in Harris v. Trojan Fireworks Co., 120 Cal.App.3d 157 (1981) served alcohol at the company holiday party. Afterwards, an intoxicated employee attempted to drive home and caused an accident. The accident resulted in the death of one individual and injuries to another. The injured individuals and the family of the decedent filed a law suit against both the employee and the employer. After initially dismissing the case against the employer, the appeals court brought the employer back into the case finding that there was sufficient connection between the employment relationship and the intoxicated employee’s conduct.

The court reasoned that although the accident occurred outside of the workplace and after work, the party was held during work hours, on the employer’s property, and the employee was paid to attend. Therefore, it was for a jury to decide whether the employee’s state of intoxication occurred within the scope of his employment and whether the accident was foreseeable.

Employers should carefully consider whether serving alcohol at company parties is worth the risk. If the decision is made to serve alcohol, employers should consider ways to limit alcohol consumption, like using drink tickets or a cash bar. Ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft also allow employers to give employees expense codes which charge their rides home to the employer, giving employees an easy alternative to driving.

Holly, Jolly, Non-Hostile Work Environments

While holiday parties are designed to encourage more casual interaction between employees, it’s important for everyone to remember that employer policies against harassment are still applicable. In Russ v. Van Scoyoc Assoc., 122 F. Supp. 2d 29 (D.D.C. 2000), a female employee brought a law suit against her employer alleging, among other things, that she was sexually harassed and discriminated against on the basis of her gender. Among the incidents she cited was the inappropriate behavior of her supervisor at the company holiday party. Specifically, her supervisor became intoxicated and began making lewd comments and stated that “she could make more money working at Hooters.”

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an employer is liable for workplace sexual harassment that is severe or pervasive enough to alter the terms of a male or female employee’s employment. Typically, a single incident will not support a sexual harassment claim unless the incident was extremely serious. While the claims in  Russ v. Van Scoyoc Assoc. were ultimately dismissed, the employer spent significant amounts of money to defend the claim.

As always, employers should ensure that all employees are up to date on workplace policies, especially those policies addressing sexual harassment and workplace conduct. This includes reminding employees prior to holiday parties that workplace policies are still applicable even in more casual settings.

The attorneys at Fishel Downey regularly work with employers to ensure compliance with federal and state employment law. If you have a specific scenario or complaint in regard to these issues, and would like assistance, contact one of the attorneys at Fishel Downey Albrecht & Riepenhoff LLP at 614.221.1216.