Minimizing corporate liability at the company picnic

By Andrew Zashin*

This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.

Spring is finally in the air. After a long, dreary Cleveland winter, temperatures are increasing, the baseball season has started, a touch of green is visible on the ground and in the trees, and children and adults alike are getting a bit of spring fever.

With the weather becoming more pleasant and the days getting longer, many companies are beginning to plan parties, picnics, or other corporate outings for their people. These events can boost employee morale, serving as a much-appreciated “thank you” for a job well done.

As you plan fun foods, drinks, and activities, though, it is prudent to think about whether any of your plans inadvertently expose the company to liability. These types of functions are not without potential peril to employers, and many of the same laws that apply during normal operating hours also affect the off-site, after-hours, company-sponsored event.

Whether you are the boss or you’ve got a boss, here are a few points to keep in mind.

Sexual harassment is also inappropriate after hours. Review your company policies and make sure everyone is aware of them. It is not a bad idea to think about whether inherent characteristics of the activities you are contemplating increase the potential for problems. An outing that has your employees donning swimming suits and board shorts, for example, may not be a terrific idea. In some cases, a dress code might even be appropriate. And, if you will have music, define a playlist that avoids questionable, potentially offensive lyrics, particularly if employees’ families will be invited to attend.

Alcohol is a popular addition to company outings, but it can be a dangerous one. Not only is there a risk of an impaired employee driving home after the event, alcohol also loosens lips and can increase the likelihood of harassment. The best way to minimize your liability exposure is to not serve it at all. I know, I know– that’s no fun. So if you do choose to have alcohol at your event, do so intelligently. Under no circumstances should you knowingly let underage attendees drink! The best option is to either hire someone or use a venue with a professional bartender who will be responsible for making sure only legal drinkers are drinking and be in a position to refuse service to anyone who has overindulged. You might consider limiting consumption by offering a set number of drink tickets, rather than an open bar. Provide taxi service for those who have had one too many and cannot drive safely, or even reserve a block of hotel rooms for employees to book.

Even if you are serving alcohol, plenty of non-alcoholic beverage options are a must. And if you know that someone has special dietary needs or a severe food allergy, plan your menu accordingly.

Finally, make it clear that participation in the event is voluntary. If someone is injured playing volleyball or in the three-legged race, your company will fare much better against a workers’ compensation or tort claim if it is apparent that the injured employee decided to play of his or her own accord, not because anyone believe it was a job requirement.

Doubtless, company outings are enjoyable for employers and employees alike. All it takes is a little knowledge and advance planning to avoid potential pitfalls so that everyone can focus on the fun. A quick reminder of company policies wouldn’t be remiss either.

*Andrew Zashin writes about law for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is a co-managing partner with Zashin & Rich, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.