Fireworks. Barbecues. Lemonade. A refreshing dip in the pool. Summer has a way of bringing out the “sunshine” in everybody. Hosting a summer event is a fun, enjoyable way to thank employees for their efforts and celebrate the pleasures of summer on Long Island. But before you dive in, it’s important to consider potential legal issues that could quickly make you forget the fun.
Serving alcohol is always a risk, raising the potential for accidents and injuries, as well as inappropriate behavior and lawsuits. But employers can reduce risk through advanced planning. While liability generally does not attach to “social hosts” for accidents or injuries suffered off-premises by third parties as a result of alcohol served by the host, at least in New York, if an employee leaves an office party and travels directly to another state, New York law may not prevent liability. Additionally, no one under the age of 21 may be served alcohol at a party, or the host may be held liable if someone is injured by that underage drinker. The safest way to prevent potential liability relative to physical injuries involving alcohol use at a summer office party is to hire bartenders to serve the alcohol and ensure that alcohol is not served to underage party guests.
Another risk associated with alcohol consumption is the level of “celebration.” As an employer, you do not want managers and/or supervisors acting inappropriately or provocatively, or flirting, with your staff. The warm weather and laid back atmosphere of summer can make some people feel it’s okay to act inappropriately in a party setting. It’s not. The same workplace standards of a non-hostile work environment and non-harassing conduct apply to and should be enforced at all office gatherings. On a related note, if the party will have music, employers should check the song list for offensive material.
Employers are also advised to carefully consider the nature of the party itself. Depending on the size and dynamics of your group, it may not be worth the headaches and potential exposure (literally) to have a pool party, which comes with its own set of issues involving appropriate clothing/swimsuit choices, as well as safety risks. An outdoor picnic with a casual dress code may be a better option. You don’t want to return from July 4th weekend facing a lawsuit alleging a hostile work environment or discrimination.
Additionally, it is probable that a court would find that employees’ attendance at an office party relates to their employment, even if attendance is voluntary, potentially triggering workers’ compensation benefits for injuries sustained during the party (and potentially afterwards). To avoid potential wage claims, if attendance is required, the party should be held during normal work hours. Employers must take reasonable steps to protect their employees and guests from injury, whether at the workplace or an off-site location where the party is held.
To help set your mind at ease before your summer event, consider doing the following:
- Skip pool-related events
- Have transportation to and from the party available
- Hire a professional bartender or caterer with sufficient liability insurance
- Provide non-alcoholic drinks
- Have management/supervisors at the party on the lookout for excessive drinking and/or inappropriate behavior
- Invite employees’ family members to participate
- Make sure employees know that they are not required to attend
A little advance planning can go a long way. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us.
Christine Malafi is a partner at Campolo, Middleton & McCormick, LLP, Suffolk County’s premier law firm. She chairs the firm’s robust Corporate department, where she focuses on mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance, and labor and employment as well as municipal, insurance coverage, and fraud issues. Included in the roster of “Who’s Who in Labor Law” on multiple occasions by the Long Island Business News, Christine has been named to the list of 2016 Top Outstanding Women in Law by Hofstra University School of Law and has also received the Long Island Top 50 Most Influential Women in Business award from LIBN. Contact Christine at firstname.lastname@example.org.