Q&A with David Slane
Reducing risk at holiday parties
Q: How do you protect yourself as a business owner hosting a holiday party?
A: One option would be to reserve a venue, such as a portion of a restaurant or bar, so they're not technically providing the food or alcohol to their employees. Another option is to hire a bartender, which would limit your exposure, or have a taxi service/designated-driver program established and encourage your employees to drink responsibly. Or consider having a nonalcoholic party — bah humbug! An employer also might want to remind guests that since it is a company function, they can be disciplined or held accountable for inappropriate activity.
Q: How do you allow your employees to have fun, but encourage responsibility?
A: In the invitation to the party, the employer could make mention that while they want guests to celebrate the season, to do so responsibly with regard to alcohol. An employer may want to suggest there be designated drivers from different departments within the company. That way there's someone in each division who knows one other well enough to do so. If it's a smaller company, they could have one person do it. The employer may want to suggest that supervisors remind their staff about drinking responsibly, and encourage them to keep an eye out for anyone who's not doing so.
Q: How do you handle a situation when sexual harassment enters the picture?
A: The same as you would under any other circumstance. A complaint of sexual harassment doesn't automatically create liability for an employer. Assuming such harassment is unwanted, if an employee makes a complaint, the employer should investigate it and handle appropriately as they would in any other situation. The key being, don't handle it while people have been drinking; address it on a day when everyone is sober, and take the appropriate action necessary. Only if you condone the illegal action/activity or allow for a hostile work environment can they ultimately be held responsible.
Q: How responsible is the business owner for an over-served employee once they leave the party premises?
A: Employers can be held responsible if they “knowingly provide alcohol to an intoxicated person (or employee)” under Oklahoma state law. Several cases in Oklahoma have actually upheld that businesses and bars can be held responsible if a person drinks too much and ultimately has an accident later while intoxicated. Employers may be protected if they suggested that guests bring their own beverages of choice so they avoid providing the drinks — BYOB.
Q: Will hiring a bartender protect you and serve as a neutral gatekeeper?
A: Hiring a licensed bartender as an independent contractor may provide you with an additional level of protection. Because you have someone licensed and trained on who to serve and who not to serve, it creates a first line of defense. And since under Oklahoma law you have to knowingly provide the alcohol, the bartender, who is technically their own company, is the one providing the alcohol and would limit the exposure of the employer. As a practical matter, someone who's unknown by the employees may not feel so obligated to serve them or fear hurting their feelings when they cut them off. They would serve as a neutral party.
PAULA BURKES, BUSINESS WRITER