BFV Perspectives, Corporate Matters, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Dec 07, 2022

NFL Drinking Incidents Serve-Up Lessons for Holiday Parties

It is the holiday season and employers across the country are planning holiday parties. While holiday parties can provide opportunities to bolster employee and client relationships, they can lead to all sorts of problems when alcohol is served.

Two high-profile alcohol-related incidents in the NFL have drawn attention to alcohol use and the enforcement of alcohol use related policies.

NFL’s Renewed Focus on Alcohol
The NFL prohibits alcohol on team planes or buses. Despite this rule, following an upset win over the Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Commander quarterback Taylor Heinicke was taped on the team plane with beer in his hand and cans beside him. The NFL office is looking into why alcohol was being served on the plane.

In an unrelated incident, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Todd Downing was arrested on suspicion of DUI and speeding. According to the Tennessee Highway Patrol, Downing was pulled over at 2:30 a.m. CT and was booked two hours later.

Following these incidents, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to all teams reminding them of the League’s policy prohibiting alcoholic beverages, stating: “This policy has been in place for many years. Making alcohol available at club facilities or while traveling creates significant and unnecessary risks to the League, its players, coaches and others. Violations of this important policy will be taken seriously and will result in significant discipline.”

Significance to Employers
Employers have a legal duty to ensure a healthy and safe work environment.  This duty applies to work-related social events including office holiday parties that occur off company premises.

While serving alcohol at company events is not illegal, excessive alcohol consumption heightens the risk of inappropriate conduct that can lead to liability in a variety of ways:

DUI and Liability Vicarious Liability
When an employee is drinking at a company event, an argument could be made that a traffic-related incident occurring after the event is within the scope of employment. This could render the employer liable under the legal theory of respondeat superior.

The Todd Downing DUI incident illustrates the risk of an intoxicated employee getting behind a wheel and endangering the employee’s safety and the safety of others. If an automobile accident occurred in this situation, Downing (as the employee) and the Titans (as the employer) would likely be sued regardless of whether the Titans were responsible for the incident.

Alcohol Dependency
The mental health of employees who may be dealing with alcohol addiction is often overlooked.  According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, 1-in-10 Americans over the age of 12 have Alcohol Use Disorder.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, alcohol abuse has been increasing, with an astonishing 60% of Americans increasing their alcohol consumption during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Now more than ever, employers should be sensitive to employees who may be battling alcoholism and realize that providing alcohol at an event could trigger a relapse or abuse.

Sexual Harassment
Alcohol abuse can also lead to incidents of offensive conduct including, but not limited to, sexual harassment. In EEOC v. Elite Wireless Group, Inc, the EEOC filed a lawsuit against a California retailer alleging that following an office holiday party, a managerial employee sexually assaulted one of his direct reports in a hotel room. There have also been studies that show a correlation between drinking alcohol and incidents of sexual assaults and sexual harassment. Anecdotally, I have handled several sexual harassment claims where the alleged perpetrator was intoxicated.  These incidents happen more often than you might think.

Employer Tips
In the wake of alcohol related incidents, the NFL reminded its teams of its rules about alcohol and the NFL’s commitment to enforcing them to avoid future incidents and the negative consequences that follow. Employers should take notice of the NFL’s action and understand that consuming alcohol in the workplace can lead to liability in a number of areas and also be detrimental to the mental health of their employees.

In light of these concerns, below are some tips for employers who choose to serve alcohol at company holiday parties and events:

  • Do not make it mandatory to attend events where alcohol is served. Be sensitive that some employees may be recovering alcoholics or battling alcohol abuse.
  • Employers who choose to serve alcohol at an event should always provide non-alcoholic beverages and food. Provide snacks before employees leave the event.
  • Consider not serving alcohol at company events that include children, such as picnics and sporting events. Or, alternatively only serve beer and wine.
  • Do not have an open bar. Limit the amount of alcohol consumed at company events by using tickets or vouchers or consider providing a cash bar.
  • Limit the time that a bar is open and close it at a reasonable time before the event ends.
  • Implement thorough and sound harassment and alcohol policies. Expressly state that the harassment policy applies inside the workplace and also at work related events.
  • Train managers and employees about the company’s harassment and alcohol policies. Clearly explain what behavior is prohibited and what the consequences will be if an employee violates the policy.
  • Assign someone the responsibility of monitoring alcohol consumption and behavior. Hire a third-party professional bartender or host events at a hotel, restaurant or venue outside of the workplace.
  • Provide transportation such as taxis, Uber or Lyft. Never let an intoxicated person drive home.

Holiday parties should be enjoyable opportunities for employees to mingle socially with colleagues and clients. If an employer decides to serve alcohol at an event, it should take proactive measures to ensure the responsible consumption of alcohol. By following the above-mentioned tips, employers can reduce the risks associated with holiday parties.

As always, please let me know if I can help.

BFV Perspectives, Corporate Matters, Sports Fans Guide 2 HR, | Dec 07, 2022
Kenneth N. Winkler
Kenneth N. Winkler

Kenneth Winklera shareholder at Berman Fink Van Horn, helps employers navigate the employment laws and regulations that govern the workplace.