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Considerations for Safe Celebrations this Holiday Season

With a thoughtful approach to creating written guidelines and modeling appropriate professional behavior, employers can create an atmosphere that is both celebratory and safe for all. TDIC’s risk management experts offer sound advice to practice owners planning holiday parties. 

The holiday season is a time for gift-wrapping, festive music, colorful decorations and lots of treats. It’s also a popular time for office celebrations. 

Cautionary measures advised when planning 

Participation, employee dynamics and labor laws all come into play when planning an office party. The Dentists Insurance Company’s risk management analysts advise practice owners to establish clear guidelines when organizing any work-related event. If care isn’t taken, practice owners can be held liable for misconduct. 

Alcohol and holiday parties often go hand in hand. But providing alcohol to employees — even after hours and away from the office — can be a cause for a liability claim. If an employer invites most or all employees to a hosted social event and attendance is mandatory or highly encouraged, the event can be considered an employment function. Because alcohol reduces inhibitions, remarks and behaviors can easily turn inappropriate. Allowing an event to become too casual and unprofessional can set the stage for a harassment claim.

Harassment and antidiscrimination policies apply at company-sponsored events 

In one case reported to TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line, a dentist hosted a holiday party at his house. Toward the end of the night, the dentist, who appeared to be intoxicated, allegedly approached an employee and made an inappropriate advance. The employee pushed him away and abruptly left his house in tears. She later stated that the dentist had expressed he wanted to date her and made comments about her personal life. She stopped showing up for work and hired an attorney.

In another case, a dentist took his staff out for drinks in celebration of the holidays. Afterwards, his office manager and hygienist went out to a bar. The office manager alleged that the hygienist made a pass at her. The office manager quit a month later and hired an attorney. In both cases, there were five-figure settlement demands.

TDIC reminds practice owners that standard harassment, antidiscrimination and workers’ compensation policies apply at company-sponsored events. Employers can be, and have been, held liable for their employees' behavior regardless of when or where it occurred. Celebrating off-site or after hours does not negate the responsibilities of an employer. Employers can also be held liable if an employee drives under the influence and causes an accident.

It is imperative that companies look for safer ways to celebrate their employees 

In response to these risks, many employers have considered eliminating holiday parties altogether. While noting the difficulties of hosting holiday gatherings Andrew Challenger, vice president of Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., acknowledged in his company’s 2022 Holiday Party Survey Report that office parties are not without benefits. “Employers know their teams are battling burnout, may be on the verge of quiet quitting, or are leaving their positions all together,” said Challenger. “The holiday party has always been a way for companies to show their teams they value them. Creating a space for employees to have fun together bolsters morale and connection to their employers and their work, so it really is an important retention and leadership tool for employers,” he added.

Challenger’s suggestions for a safer holiday celebration mirror those of TDIC’s risk management experts:

  • limit the guest list (employees only, no plus ones) 
  • hold the party during the workday
  • avoid serving alcohol

Employers should also consider and adhere to applicable overtime rules and rest periods when hosting office celebrations. If a celebration is held during work hours, meal and rest periods are required as per usual. If held after hours and attendance is mandatory, overtime rules apply. Risk Management analysts recommend employers consider allowing their employees who are attending a party in the evening on a workday to leave work early.

Practice owners should establish clear guidelines and expectations for maintaining a professional demeanor at office celebrations. The best action practice owners can take to communicate and document expectations of employee behavior is to include an office policy in their employee handbook, citing specific examples of unprofessional and unacceptable behavior as well as examples of respectful behavior and professional conduct.

In addition, consider sending out a friendly reminder to staff before any celebration reiterating that office policies and standards apply to holiday events and that the office maintains a zero-tolerance policy for harassment. Ideally, this reminder should reference your practice’s employee handbook. With unacceptable actions clearly defined, everyone in the office will be less likely to cross the line during holiday events and throughout the rest of the year. 

Include all employees in gift-giving to avoid perceptions of favoritism 

Gift-giving at any time of year should be approached with caution. Even when employers and employees are trying to make a kind holiday gesture, unintended consequences can result. To avoid any perceptions of favoritism or discrimination, all holiday gifts should be appropriate in nature and remain consistent in value. TDIC Risk Management analysts advise employers to treat all employees the same when it comes to gifting. By including everyone, practice owners can help maintain positive office morale and avoid conflict. 

Though holiday events can and should be celebratory and fun, maintaining professionalism among all attendees is still necessary. It’s important for practice owners to remember that they are employers first, not friends of employees. Allowing an atmosphere to become too casual introduces the risk of inappropriate comments and unprofessional behavior into workplace events. 

Ideally, practice owners should not have to start the new year correcting mistakes of the past. By taking a few precautionary measures, it is possible to curb risk while wrapping up the year with joy. 

TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line is a benefit to TDIC policyholders. To schedule a consultation with an experienced risk management analyst, visit or call 1.877.269.8844. 

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