Drinkin’ on the Job: Office Holiday Parties


The holiday season is officially upon us, and that means office holiday parties.  Don’t mean to break up the party or anything, but it’s important to remember that since work social functions may be considered an extension of the workplace, laws that apply in the workplace may also apply at the party.

Employers can permit employees to drink at work.

Just as employers may allow employees to consume alcohol at holiday parties, they may also allow drinking in the workplace.  It is understandable many employers have policies strictly prohibiting the use of alcohol in the workplace.  Alcohol use by employees can contribute to additional costs for employers, including increased absences and tardiness, less productivity, workplace fatalities, higher medical costs, increased turnover, and workplace theft.  However, some employers do not only not discourage the use of alcohol in the workplace, they may even have beer on tap or fully stocked bars in the office.  They may be on to something.  There is evidence that allowing employees to drink on the job can aid the creative process and lead to problem solving.  According to a study conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago, participants whose blood alcohol level was slightly under .08 percent performed better in a creative task than those who were sober.  Bratskeir, Kate. “Drinking (A Little) At Work Could Actually Make You Better At Your Job.” 23 December 2014.

There are some things to consider when adding alcohol to holiday parties.

Before we get carried away here and start making inappropriate copies on the copy machine, there are considerations employers should take into account when allowing employees to drink at the workplace or at work sponsored functions, such as holiday parties.  Employees are often less careful with their conduct at work social functions than they are during normal working hours in the workplace, especially when alcohol is involved.  As a result, such functions could set the stage for sexual harassment to occur.  Since the work social functions may be considered an extension of the workplace, inappropriate conduct that occurs could constitute illegal sexual harassment.  As the court noted in Place v. Abbott Laboratories, 215 F.3d 803 (7th Cir. 2000), “at the risk of playing the Grinch . . . we note that office Christmas parties also seem to be fertile ground for unwanted sexual overtures that lead to Title VII complaints.”

Considerations beyond sexual harassment exist as well when serving alcohol at workplace events.  Employers may be held liable for damages caused by intoxicated employees who cause injuries to others under a “respondeat superior” theory.  If, for instance, an employee becomes intoxicated at the holiday party and gets into a car accident on the way home, those injured as a result may claim that the employer is liable for the employee’s conduct under the theory that the drinking occurred in the course of the employee’s employment.

Always remember to party safe.

Okay, now that I’m done being a buzzkill, go have some fun.  The holidays are a time for cheer.  It’s okay to go to the office party and enjoy yourself . . . just not too much.  Leave the mistletoe at home and avoid getting behind the wheel if you have had too much to drink.  Happy holidays!