Holiday parties! Great food! Great drink! Wonderful conversation! And a fantastic breeding ground for lawsuits and litigation.

Every year, we receive questions from employees and employers seeking to bring, or ward off, litigation after a holiday party goes wrong. This year, we have put together a few do’s and don’ts for both employees and employers.

A holiday office party is considered a work-related function. This has huge implications for both employers and employees. Behavior that might be acceptable (and not actionable) outside of work, could be cause for discharge or form the basis for a lawsuit when it is work-related.

Alcohol Advisory

Too much of a good thing leads to the majority of misbehaviors that later result in disciplinary action or litigation. When alcohol flows, inhibitions are often washed away. Sexually suggestive comments, unwanted touching, disrespectful conduct toward others, racially or culturally insensitive remarks sometimes follow. Inebriated supervisors who ask overly-intrusive questions about an employee’s personal life or status put themselves at risk for future discrimination or retaliation claims, especially if the supervisor makes comments about the employee’s gender, marital status, age, disability, or other protected category. Workers who gripe about their jobs, express their unfavorable views of co-workers, or simply get wasted and behave badly could find themselves facing discipline, including termination, or earn a black mark that results in less favorable treatment down the road. (“John’s a good worker, but I don’t really think he’s ready for a promotion. Remember how trashed he got at the party last year?”).

Serving alcohol at a party, whether at an open bar or cash bar, could also lead to liability for employer and employee if a party guest is injured or in an accident related to excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages. If alcohol is served, a wise employer will closely monitor its consumption.

Consider this: If an employee is injured at a work-related function, he or she may be eligible to collect workers’ compensation benefits. If Harry drinks so much he falls down and breaks his arm, his employer could end up paying for his time off-the-job. If Sally heads to her car after drinking six festive margaritas, her employer could be liable if Sally hurts someone else, or even herself, in alcohol-related accident on her way home. (A person injured in such an accident is likely to sue both Sally and her employer, no-fault driving laws notwithstanding.)

Indecorous Conduct

The loosening of inhibitions that often attends social events, with or without alcohol, can lead to some embarrassing moments. What happens at a party doesn’t just stay at the party. Phones will be out, and pictures will be taken — and very likely shared on social media. Jenny’s wardrobe mishap posted to Facebook may live in the digital world for years, and haunt her in her efforts to be taken seriously at work. A social media post of a supervisor bumping and grinding on the dance floor may not only be embarrassing, it could also lend support to a claim of sexual harassment or retaliation.

Dress for Success

It may be a party, but that doesn’t mean employees should dress as they would at any other social get-together. That skin-tight mini with plunging neckline should stay in the closet. Attire that is overtly sexy or just unseemly (unbuttoned shirt opened to display 8 inches of chest hair and multiple chains, for instance) is inappropriate at work, and equally so at a holiday work party. Be festive, but play it safe. Presenting the wrong image at a holiday party could stay with a worker or employer for years.

Party or Else?

Attendance at a holiday party should be voluntary, unless the event is held during work hours as part of a meeting or other work-related function (in which case, employees must be paid for time at the party.) Employees should not feel pressured to attend the event. Skipping a party should not be grounds for disciplinary action or affect an employee’s chances for professional advancement.

Nix on the Nativity

While Christmas is a religious holiday for many Christians, office parties should not emphasize religious beliefs, icons, or symbols. In an office environment, it cannot be assumed that everyone follows the same beliefs. Guests whose religious traditions differ from those commonly associated with the holiday season may feel excluded or disrespected. The resentment that can build as a result of that disrespect, whether actual or perceived, often leads to employment issues later on.

Have Fun?

Even with these restrictions and cautions, a holiday party can still be a great place to get to know co-workers or supervisors better and enjoy a meal cooked by someone else. So, have fun this holiday season – just remember, whether you’re hosting or attending a workplace holiday party to drink responsibly, dress appropriately, and watch what you say and do.

The lawyers at GWINN LEGAL PLLC are experienced attorneys and are happy to answer your questions. Give us a call for a free initial telephone consultation about your legal needs. For consideration of your questions in our web column, please submit your inquiry on the “Contact Us” page of our website at

Information provided on “Ask the Lawyer” is current as of the date of publication. Laws and their interpretation are subject to change. The material provided through “Ask the Lawyer” is informational only; it should not be considered legal advice. Submitting a question to “Ask the Lawyer” does not create an attorney-client relationship between the person submitting the question and GWINN LEGAL PLLC. To view previous columns, please visit our website.

By: Daniel A. Gwinn, Esq.
Attorney and Counselor at Law
901 Wilshire Drive, Suite 550
Troy, MI 48084
(248) 247-3300
(248) 247-3310 facsimile
[email protected]