Alcohol and Office Functions

You can serve alcohol safely at a company party or other setting, but if problems occur, your activities as an employer may be looked at closely.  Since employees may be encouraged or expected to attend an office function, there may be elements of supporting general business purposes by attending.  You want everyone invited – employees, family members or guests – to enjoy themselves and it is in your interest that no one go overboard. 

Offensive behavior at office parties, fueled by alcohol, can result in complaints of a hostile work environment or of harassment – claims for sexual harassment increase immediately after the holiday season.  As a work-related event, holiday parties must abide by all policies in the employer handbook.  In addition, society is less and less tolerant of drinking and driving. An impaired driver who causes an auto accident is much more likely to be sued and besides the driver, a lawsuit may include a business that provided alcohol.

There are some protections in Washington law and Commercial General Liability (CGL) policies generally provide coverage for liquor liability.  Holding an event at a venue that allows alcohol to be consumed or hiring a bartender may provide some insulation against liability, but check to make sure the venue or the bartender are adequately covered for liability – after the party is no time to find out that your coverage or the venue’s is insufficient.

In Washington, if an employee is served after he or she is “apparently intoxicated,” an injured party can sue both the server and the employer sponsoring the party.  Proof of apparent intoxication has been more lenient in employee party lawsuits than in other commercial settings.  Also, if minors are served at your party, you may be liable for their injuries resulting from serving them alcohol.

Here’s some practical advice to help manage your liability as an employer. 

Always remind employees that company policies are in force during the employee party and that hostile or harassing behavior will not be tolerated.  Bear in mind that, if you have a written policy, be prepared to enforce it.  Otherwise, you will have set a standard that you are not living up to.

Avoid serving liquor to employees who are apparently intoxicated and discourage intoxicated employees from driving or engaging in other hazardous activities.  Consider using professional servers who can better recognize signs of intoxication and never instruct servers to promote consumption.  Make sure all possible steps are taken to avoid accidental service to minors.  Be careful in continuing to socialize after a party is over to maintain the same vigilance – the after party may be viewed as an extension of the event.

Remember that one hallmark of intoxication is impaired judgment. If employees are encouraged or allowed to become intoxicated, you can anticipate that some may exercise exceedingly bad judgment, either for their own safety, or for the safety of others.  To assure safety, consider tactics like cab vouchers to help people get home safely. 

With a little planning and common sense, and the expert help of your Washington business insurance agent, you can host a sensible and safe event for your employees.  

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