Legal Landmines at Holiday Office Parties
The holidays are prime time for parties – office parties included. Before you don your holiday sweater and reach for that second bourbon-egg nog, consider some common situations that present legal pitfalls that could land your employer – or you – in trouble.
Don’t Expect a Free Ride
What if you drink too much and just need a ride home? Is your employer obligated to pay for transportation?
Your employer is really only responsible for keeping you safe while you’re on the job. So if the party is off the clock, you’re probably out of luck. “Driving home is not normally considered part of the work day unless the employee is paid for that time,” notes John P. Hancock, Jr., a lawyer with Butzel Long in Detroit.
Sometimes office parties are fun. As in, there’s dancing. But don’t be that guy who drinks one too many wine spritzers and starts seeing visions of the dance floor in “Saturday Night Fever.”
If you get hurt on the dance floor – or hurt someone else – whether workers’ compensation applies will depend on where the party takes place, Hancock indicates.
“If the company has the party at a restaurant or other public place and there is a cash bar rather than an open bar, the injuries resulting from intoxication may not be covered by workers’ comp,” he says.
“Each state is different, but if it is a party run and supplied by the employer and especially if it is on the company premises, it is likely any injuries at the party will be covered by workers’ comp,” Hancock explains.
Flower Shop, Hardware Shop: Dram Shop
In general, if you get drunk at the party and hurt a co-worker, he or she would have several ways to recover legally.
“The innocent bystander could go after dram shop liability if the employer provided the alcohol, just as if he might sue a bar who sold the inebriated individual alcohol,” Hancock says. Dram shop liability arises under state laws that cover serving alcohol to a person who is already clearly drunk.
“The injured employee or bystander could always go after premises liability,” he adds, which means he’d be suing the owner of the property where the injury occurred.
And your co-worker could certainly sue you for negligence, especially if none of the other avenues work out.
‘I Really Like Your Reindeer Sweater…’
Finally, what if your co-worker comes on too strong at the punch bowl? Simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious probably won’t rise to the level of sexual harassment, according to the EEOC.
“Harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted),” explains the agency.
It doesn’t matter if the harasser is just a co-worker or happens to be the CEO; if it happens to you, alert your boss or the human resources department as soon as possible.
“If there is any sexual harassment by a co-worker, that could be the basis for a claim if it is reported and the company does not act on it,” says Hancock. “If it is reported and the company takes appropriate action, there is a good chance it will not lead to anything further.”