Avoiding Medical Office Holiday Party Liability

November 28, 2017
Ike Devji, JD

Medical practices must follow basic rules and good management principles to avoid serious holiday party liability.

The week after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of office holiday party season for businesses across the U.S. including medical practices. Unfortunately, what should be a happy team building event and an act of gratitude produces a variety of preventable risks that I get calls about every year. Given the recent events in the news related to employment lawsuits and sexual harassment, and our current socially and politically charged environment, medical practice leaders must take this warning more seriously than ever.

Here's a basic risk management checklist for professional hosts:

Attendance is Always Optional

The optional nature of the event should be included in every discussion and all written materials about the event. Do not penalize or ostracize those that do not attend and do not allow other staff to do so.

Be Insured

As we have covered before, insurance is the first line of defense. Proper limits of general liability, workers comp coverage and an EPLI policy to cover non-injury claims are all vital.

Be Clear, It''s still an "Office" Party

Regular business standards of language, conduct, sexual harassment, and all other rules in your employment policy manual  that control your risk of workplace claims of bias and discrimination still apply. The personal conduct of owners or managers in particular must always be "zero tolerance" and exemplary. They have a position of authority over others in attendance that may feel pressured or intimidated into participating or prohibited from objecting. If you have a partner that can't behave after two drinks, get him in and out, the liability is yours.

Control the booze

The best advice is no alcohol. Most of the injuries, accidents, assaults, and inappropriate behavior that occur at work events are alcohol related. That said, many hosts and guests expect alcohol as part of a social event, so make sure there are enforced 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. Some experts suggest offering only beer, wine, and low alcohol content mixed drinks. A generous serve-yourself open bar of hard liquor is a ticket to disaster and leads heavier drinkers to take and offer others shots. Let your guests know in advance that anyone appearing overly intoxicated will be "cut-off" and have a plan to get them home.

Feed Your Guests

For those serving alcohol, food service is required. Eating helps keep attendees full, slows their consumption of alcohol and keeps busy them so they will hopefully drink less and not have an empty stomach.

Have a Plan to Get Them Home

The cost of providing/reimbursing for transportation is a fraction of the legal fees you'll face from any harm incurred. Employees that are even slightly impaired should be told they will be provided transport by taxi, Uber, etc.

Do You Need A Dress Code?

Some of you know your staff well enough to already know if there could be an issue and act proactively, while others are in for an interesting surprise this year. While it certainly doesn't have to be formal, it can still be respectful, so be prepared to answer questions about beforehand and to send the lady in the raunchy Christmas sweater home.

Plan for Inclusivity

Whether or not you err on the side of caution by calling it a "holiday" party, anything that's overtly religious or political that can create real or perceived hostility should obviously be avoided. Make sure that all attendees, including those with physical limits and religious sensitivities, can safely participate in the celebration. Avoid anything overly physical, controversial or which facilitates inappropriate physical contact, speech or behavior. Typical examples we've seen include mistletoe, cards against humanity, and drinking games.

Seriously Consider an Offsite Venue 

Organized activities at comedy clubs, sporting events, art and wine venues and a number of others are often well received non-traditional parties. This may help limit liability and protect your office from strangers and other exposures, like a records breach or theft.