A Safe and Sober Message About Workplace Parties

Workplace parties typically mean lots of music, food and drinks. If the drinks include alcohol, the potential for unfortunate consequences greatly increases. Opinions vary regarding the appropriateness of making alcoholic beverages available at workplace parties or other company-sponsored events. Ignoring the possibility that some employees or guests may drive home "under the influence" invites trouble, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Impaired Driving.

Improper use of alcohol may expose employers to liability under tort, workers' compensation or other laws. California courts have held employers liable for personal injuries caused by employees who drive home from company sponsored holiday parties in a state of intoxication. Some employers have been held liable because negligent acts by employees under the influence of alcohol consumed at employer-sponsored events were found to be within the scope of their employment. In other cases, individuals have been held liable merely because they provided alcohol to social guests.

For example, in Harris v. Trojan Fireworks Company, the Court found a sufficient connection between an employer's holiday party and an employee's auto accident to justify holding the employer financially responsible for the injuries that occurred during the employee's accident (120 Cal.App.3d 157 (1981)). The Court stated, "although the accident occurred away from the employers premises and presumably after work, we believe that the operable factors giving rise to the subsequent accident at least make a prima facie showing that the accident occurred in the course of [the employee's] employment . . . ." Id. at 164.

In Harris, it was alleged that the party occurred during working hours, and the employee was paid to attend and encouraged to drink excessively. The Court explained that its decision was not based upon the fact that the company furnished alcohol to the employee as a basis of negligent conduct on the part of the company. Instead, the furnishing of the alcohol by the company was merely one of the facts that were considered in determining if the employee's intoxication occurred within the scope of his employment at the Company. Id. at fn. 7.

All employers run a risk if they serve alcoholic beverages at workplace celebrations and other company-sponsored events because they may be held liable if a person causes a crash subsequent to consuming alcoholic beverages at such an event. However, if an employer does decide to provide or allow alcoholic beverages at an office event, state laws regarding their use and resulting employer legal responsibilities should be consulted and addressed.

The U.S. Department of Labor provides several measures employers can take in attempt to minimize any negative consequences of alcohol consumption:

1.) Be honest with employees. Make sure your employees know your workplace substance abuse policy and that the policy addresses the use of alcoholic beverages in any work-related situation and office social function.

2.) Post the policy. Use every communication vehicle to make sure your employees know the policy. Prior to an office party, use break room bulletin boards, office e-mail and paycheck envelopes to communicate your policy and concerns.

3.) Reinvent the office party concept. Why have the typical office party? Try something new like an indoor carnival, group outing to an amusement park or volunteer activity with a local charity.

4.) Make sure employees know when to say when. If you do serve alcohol at an office event, make sure all employees know that they are welcome to attend and have a good time, but that they are expected to act responsibly.

5.) Make it the office party of choice. Make sure there are plenty of non-alcoholic beverages available.

6.) Eat...and be merry! Avoid serving lots of salty, greasy or sweet foods which tend to make people thirsty. Serve foods rich in starch and protein which stay in the stomach longer and slow the absorption of alcohol in the bloodstream.

7.) Designate party managers. Remind managers that even at the office party, they may need to implement the company's alcohol and substance abuse policy.

8.) Arrange alternative transportation. Anticipate the need for alternative transportation for all party goers and make special transportation arrangements in advance of the party. Encourage all employees to make use of the alternative transportation if they consume any alcohol.

9.) Serve none for the road. Stop serving alcohol before the party officially ends.

Helpful tips are available through the U.S. Department of Labor website at www.dol.gov. Kring & Chung, LLP can answer questions about these or other employment related issues.