With Halloween upon us at the end of the week, a review of holiday party customs that can create significant liability for doctors and practice managers is important and timely. Your managers and employees must know the rules so that a nice gesture doesn’t end in a lawsuit. As the host, you are legallyresponsible for every guest’s safety, conduct and even their “perceptions” of what they might subjectively consider to be harassing or discriminatory, so use this ten-point checklist as a starting point:
1) It’s Optional. No really, don’t make it a required event and don’t penalize or ostracize those who can’t or don’t want to come. The optional nature of the event should be explicit in any discussion or written materials around the event.
2) Avoid Empty Stomachs. If you are going to serve alcohol, food service is required. This not only helps keep them full so they drink less, but keeps them busy and helps avoid them drinking their dinner.
3) Control the booze. The best advice is to serve no alcohol, as the vast majority of injuries, accidents, assaults, and inappropriate behavior is alcohol related. However, for many individuals alcohol is an expected or desired part of such an event, so you should take steps to enforce limits on the amount of alcohol or number of drinks (drink tickets, limiting hosted drink service to a specific time, etc.) any one guest consumes by offering only beer, wine, and low alcohol content mixed drinks. A table covered with bottles of hard liquor with no one watching or pouring is a ticket to disaster and an invitation for heavier drinkers to take and offer others “shots”. Equally enforce rules about anyone appearing intoxicated being “cut-off” and make this known to all guests in advance.
4) Think About Getting Them Home. Any employee that feels impaired should be told they will be provided transport by taxi, Uber, or for bigger group events, you can even consider commercial services like The Driver Provider that will get people and their cars home or provide group transport to and from offsite events. The cost of providing/reimbursing these services is a fraction of the legal fees you’ll face from any harm incurred.
5) Remind Guests It’s Still an “Office” Party. All codes of language conduct, sexual harassment, and other rules in your employment policy manual that control possible workplace claims of bias and discrimination still apply. This is especially important if we are talking about conduct by an owner or manager that has a position of authority over others in attendance and may claim to have been pressured or intimidated into participating or prohibited from objecting.
6) Consider Dress Code Rules. Look for ways to proactively limit inappropriate conduct, speech or behavior, especially at Halloween when many of the commercial costumes seem to include the words “naughty” or “sexy” in the title. I’ve seen X-rated Christmas sweaters as well, so don’t assume other holidays are risk free.
7) Be inclusive. Some attorneys go as far as to say that you can’t call it a “Christmas” party and should err on the side of caution by calling it a “Holiday” party. While that fine point is debatable, anything that’s overtly religious or political is a bad idea given that issues of real or perceived hostility or bias motivate many employment related lawsuits.
8) Keep Them Busy, Appropriately. Consider ways to keep guests busy that all attendees, including those with physical limits and religious sensitivities, can safely participate in. Avoid games that are overly physical, controversial or which facilitate inappropriate speech and behavior. Real examples we’ve seen include hanging Mistletoe, Cards against Humanity, and even beer pong (yes really, in a surgeon’s office).
9) Consider An Offsite Venue. We’ve seen doctors use sporting events, comedy clubs, art and wine parties and a number of other organized activities as well received non-traditional parties. This may help limit liability and protect your office from strangers and other exposures, like a records breach.
10) Check Your Insurance. Both your general liability and workers comp coverage may come into play, make sure you have appropriate limits of both as well an EPLI policy in place in the event of an exposure.