The Christmas season is upon us, and that means invites to the office holiday party, open houses, and preschool-benefit auctions are starting to pile up on the table next to your front door. You're probably starting to get anxious—wear velvet headband or diamond clippie? bring potted plant or midrange merlot?—and yet you are likely ignoring the most important holiday question of all: Who are you going to sue this holiday season, and, more vitally, who is going to sue you?
Luckily, the folks at Lawyers.com are all over this issue this year, and help is on the way. Their recent Harris poll reveals most Americans are woefully unaware of the legal liability they assume when they agree to host a holiday gathering. Even more alarming, most Americans are staggeringly unaware of the absolute cash cow holiday parties can become, in the hands of the right employee. Finding yourself a little short on cash this month? Your best bet may well be to wear something slutty and get fondled by someone from tech support. (Disclaimer: Nothing in the foregoing sentence constitutes legal advice.)
According to this article, in a national phone survey of 1,051 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, conducted only two years ago, "nearly one in four (24%) adults do not know that a party host who serves alcohol to a clearly drunk guest may be legally responsible if that person goes on to hurt or kill someone in a car accident." Yet, the article continues "one in five (20%) adults will host or co-host a holiday party this year at which alcohol will be served."
Horrifying as that statistic is, this one is worse: "Twenty-nine percent of adults have experienced or observed sexual advances between people who work together at such gatherings." Now, you may not have known that observed sexual advances are legally actionable. Frankly, it was news to us, as well. But that means your potential liability as a prospective host is through the roof.
The article on Lawyers.com offers a few practical suggestions for hosts seeking to immunize themselves from this devastating legal liability: Car keys should be collected and returned only to sober drivers. Also, "[l]etting everyone attending explicitly know what behavior is prohibited—including that which is flirtatious or sexual—can help remove sexual harassment problems." But it seemed to us at Slate that this is only the tip of the civil-liability iceberg. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what happens if one of your holiday guests chokes on the cheese log? Or considered what happens if a guest loses an eye to the mistletoe? And what if one of your colleagues suffers social anxiety or embarrassment at the hands of a cruel workmate? Or an atheist guest "accidentally" bumps into someone wearing a Santa sweater?
May as well declare bankruptcy now.
At Slate, our motto for every holiday get-together is: "You can never be too careful, or too joyless," and as such, we now affix the following notice to every holiday-related invitation. We beseech you to do the same:
WARNING: You are herein invited to attend a Holiday Party. Should you choose to attend this event, you are herein advised that you do so at your own peril. Food served may be manufactured in factories that may contain machinery that may have touched peanuts. In the absence of any coherent party-based sexual-harassment policy, you are warned that any hugging/touching/casual flirting/wine-stem fondling/hair tossing/breast gazing/butt grabbing will be deemed actionable at law. All guests must maintain a 5-foot distance from all others at all times (spouses included). Appropriate topics for conversation are: work; sports; light political banter; reality-television shows. Any unapproved conversational topics shall be cleared in advance by the Human Resources department. All dance moves shall be preapproved by the HR department. Seminars on these moves shall be conducted twice daily in the small conference room on the second floor between now and the day of the party. All closets, conference rooms, restrooms, and other possible areas of sexual misconduct are to be padlocked for the duration of the event. Small children are to be chaperoned at all times. Any child found playing or otherwise conducting himself in a childlike manner will be summarily removed from the premises. Should you or your partner feel at any point during the party that you have been sexually harassed, socially discomfited, religiously proselytized, or otherwise made to feel uneasy in any way, a team of HR lawyers will be made available to you immediately. Do not minimize your feelings or wait a few days to see if the bad feeling blows over. Prompt attention to any social discomfort is critical to eradicating it in the workplace. Once again, we wish you and yours a very happy holiday season, and hope to make this year's office party the best ever.