March 30, 2018

How to Have a Safe, Enjoyable, Liability-Free Office Party

by John Markus and Anne Valentine, Leeseberg & Valentine

Employers have long sponsored social events to reward employees for work well done or simply to create good will and a positive office culture. While the day of the “wild office party” is mostly a thing of the past, many employers continue to host various social events where alcohol is served as a perk for its employees.

Whether it is an end-of-the-work-day happy hour, a holiday party or a company sponsored picnic, a well-intentioned employer may expose the company or firm to potential legal liability or put an employee at risk if they are not prudent in organizing the event. With some thoughtful planning, however, there are certain steps an employer can take not only to avoid legal liability but also to assure a safe, enjoyable event for its employees.

Ohio law provides that an employer is generally not legally liable when acting as a social host in sponsoring firm social events, so long as the employer is not providing alcohol to underage persons. This should not be construed as providing employers with a free pass to throw a wild office party without restriction. There are certain situations that could result in employer liability and, through its actions, put its employee in harm’s way. For example, if an employer hosts a happy hour after regular business hours and requires the attendance of its employees, then the employer could expose itself to liability through the doctrine of respondent superior. Moreover, if an employer encourages its employees to drink excessively and an employee goes on to harass or assault another employee, the employer may be at risk of a hostile work environment claim.

What can an employer do to decrease its risk of liability and responsibly host a social event for its employees? Some suggestions include making the event voluntary, as this helps preclude any claim that an intoxicated person was acting within the course and scope of his/her employment. This should be coupled with the event taking place during non-working hours and clarifying that the social event is not an extension of the workday. Employers should also take the time to recognize the effect alcohol may have on employee behavior and make clear that any company policies regarding appropriate conduct toward others applies at social events, as well as the office. Some other options to ensure a safe, enjoyable and liability-free office party are to hold the event at a public restaurant, serve food, do not offer unlimited alcohol, stop serving an hour or more before the event ends and offer free cab or ride sharing services to employees.

By taking these simple steps, well-intentioned employers put themselves in a much better position to avoid potential exposure to liability. Most importantly, it allows the employees to spend time with their fellow co-workers in a safe and enjoyable environment, which should be the goal of any office social gathering.