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Avoiding some legal pitfalls of office holiday parties: Part I

December is a socially busy month. And it is one of the few times of the year when it is customary for work life to mix with social life. This usually occurs in the form of the holiday party.

Many businesses here in Broward County and across Florida will be celebrating the season by throwing their own holiday parties. But without careful planning and execution, a holiday party can quickly create legal messes for both employers and employees, including allegations of religious discrimination, sexual harassment and other serious consequences.

In a recent article in Bloomberg, an attorney discussed some common pitfalls associated with holiday parties and how to avoid them. First, he noted that the term holiday party is carefully chosen.

Rather than referring to it as a Christmas party (which may be considered discriminatory) or a seasonal celebration (which seems too politically correct), the term holiday party recognizes that there are several major holidays at this time of year, including Christmas, Hannukah, Kwanza and others.

The author also mentions that it is a good idea to keep party decorations either all-inclusive, or somewhat neutral and secular. Getting employee input on decorations beforehand can help employers avoid any talk of religious discrimination later.

One of the other major pitfalls of holiday parties is the consumption of alcohol. In moderation, alcohol can be a social lubricant that allows party guests to feel relaxed and enjoy each other in a setting that seems wholly different from work.

Too much irresponsible imbibing, however, can potentially lead to DUI charges and car accidents, embarrassing comments and allegations of sexual harassment.

Check back later this week, as we continue our discussion.

Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, "Planning Office Holiday Parties Without Lawsuits," Jonathan A. Segal, Nov. 15, 2011

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