Alcohol at Your Company’s Holiday Party

A picture of filled martini glasses in a row.

The holiday season can be a great time of year to bring your employees together and celebrate your successes. But behind every fun company gathering lurks the potential for your company to get sued for an employee’s bad behavior. (Prefer video? Click here!)

While booze in the workplace is becoming more and more common in the daily workplace, the holidays are a time that’s particularly full of company events where alcohol is present. Unfortunately for employers, you can be held legally responsible for the actions of your employees.

A few things you could end up on the hook for include:

  • Vicarious liability for injury. This means that if your drunk employee hurts someone, and that injured person sues, they can come after YOU to pay their bills.
  • Auto accidents. If an employee is too drunk to drive and gets into an accident where they hurt themselves or someone else, you could be held responsible.
  • Improperly serving alcohol to an inebriated person. If someone is too drunk to keep drinking, it might be your legal responsibility to make sure they’re cut off. If they keep getting served, it could potentially be on you.
  • Underage drinking. If an employee or underage family member of an employee is under the legal drinking age but is served alcohol at your event, you’re the one that could get in trouble, even if you didn’t hand them the drink.
  • Harassment. Alcohol loosens inhibitions, and your employees might say or do something they normally wouldn’t in the workplace. You’re the one who could be held responsible for their inappropriate behavior. (Here’s our article about Handling Harassment Complaints.)

No employer wants to be held responsible for the bad actions of their employees, so what can you do to minimize these risks?

  • Don’t serve alcohol. Probably the easiest (and cheapest!) solution to these problems, but realistically speaking, most companies find it important to provide some alcohol at certain company gatherings to provide a fun experience for their employees. So if you do decide to service alcohol…
  • Hold your event off-site. If you hold your event off company grounds, your event can take place somewhere that already has a liquor license, their own insurance, and good bartenders. Professional bartenders will be familiar with the rules about cutting off people who are too drunk to keep drinking, and they’ll also know to check IDs before serving.
  • If you do hold your event on site, hire a professional bartender. As above, a professional bartender will know how to handle some of the potential issues. Do not have an employee serve the alcohol, or have a do-it-yourself bar. Don’t forget to make sure your lease lets you have alcohol on site, and do look into getting special insurance to cover the event, just in case.
  • Check for underage drinking. Make sure your bartender is checking IDs, and/or have another system in place to make sure nobody is drinking under age.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol served. Some suggestions:
    1. Provide limited drink tickets to each attendee, or have the bartender stamp the person’s hand every time they order a drink.
    2. Limit the amount of time the bar is open.
    3. Limit the length of the party.
    4. Have the party earlier in the day.
    5. Provide beer and wine only.
    6. Pay for food and non-alcoholic drinks, but have the attendees pay for their own alcohol. They’ll drink less if they have to pay.
    7. Make sure to have plenty of non-alcoholic drinks, things to eat, and entertainment to keep them busy.
  • Provide transportation, or at least make sure your venue has easy access to cabs or public transportation.
  • Inform any supervisors or party planners in advance to look out for people who are visibly intoxicated. Cut them off, and make sure they have a ride home.
  • Before the party, remind your employees that this is still a work function. Work policies still apply, including the rules governing harassment, dress code, and appropriate conduct. Also encourage them to plan out who will be designated drivers.
  • Consider drafting an alcohol policy, and/or a social media policy (let’s avoid employees posting embarrassing videos of other drunken employees) in advance.

Remember that these issues can happen year-round, so make sure your policies and procedures are in place long before you have an event or make alcohol available to your employees. Each state is different, so talk to your lawyer (hopefully that’s us!) and make sure you understand all the rules that apply to you and your business.