HR Headaches: With company parties and events, think before you drink.

Summer is a great time in Kansas City, but employers contemplating company picnics, barbeques or other events that involve alcohol should be warned—they might be setting themselves up for an expensive lawsuit.

I recently received a call from a client advising that there was going to be a meeting. The actual memo that was issued to all managers was this: “It’s that time again folks! Summer is here, we are having a great month, and it’s time to do a little team building exercise. By team building exercise I, of course, mean go to a bar and drink together.”

This may be an extreme example, and I am not a prude or wet blanket, but there are numerous liabilities and land mines built into this situation. Some of the liabilities are external, legal ones and some are internal morale and values-based issues. Let’s explore.

If the event or activity is company-planned and sponsored, then anything that happens at, or as a result of, the event or activity is “on the company.” If someone gets inebriated and then drives home and hurts someone, then it is a legal liability for the company. The possibilities for those types of situations may be remote, but the reality is they do happen.

More likely, the problems will be more interpersonal. People “under the influence” behave differently than when they are sober. Some are happy drunks. Some get mean when they drink. Some lose their inhibitions. Some think they are God’s gift to the other gender. Most just make fools of themselves.

I had one situation where an attendee pulled a starter pistol (the type of gun used to start a track or swimming event) and pointed it at his coworkers as a joke. He pulled the trigger and created a loud BANG!—loads of fun, right? Another client had a drunken employee grope another employee at one of these functions. Employees propositioning other employees is typical, too.

What values are on display here? What values are on display in the days afterward when senior management has to deal with the aftermath? The context changes from party setting to work setting pretty quickly. There is more here than just embarrassment.

If nothing else, consider this: In both Missouri and Kansas, employers may be liable for injuries caused by their employees after providing them with alcohol at work parties or other work-related events. They may also be held liable if the accident occurred while the employee was using a company car, while performing his or her job duties, or on the employer’s property.

If there is going to be a corporate-sponsored event or activity, have it be dry or only the soft stuff. If there is going to be hard stuff, have it on a one- or two-drink limit. Have the event start and end early. If people want to stay around after the event officially ends so they can continue to drink, make it clear that’s on their own. Set expectations for professionalism. The owner or senior persons need to set the example. 

  Steve Cohen is president/partner of Labor Management Advisory Group Inc., and HR Solutions: On-Call. He has more than 35 years of specialized experience solving HR problems in companies of all sizes. He recently wrote “Mess Management: Lessons from a Corporate Hit Man.” He’ll be providing insight on HR topics every month exclusively for KCBCentral.