Surviving The Holiday Party Season: An Employer’s Quick Reference Guide

As 2016 winds down, we are entering into the prime season for holiday gatherings. Based on a recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management, approximately 65% of employers plan to host a holiday or end-of-year party. Although these parties can be a lot of fun, they can be hotbeds for potential employer liability. So, what can you do to reduce the potential for mishaps?

There is no surefire way to eliminate legal exposure, but there are some proactive steps you can take to reduce their risk. Think of this article as a roadmap, so you can focus on what is really important: having fun and celebrating with your employees!


1.  Serving Alcohol Is A Risk

People enjoy an occasional holiday alcoholic beverage – cocktails, beer, wine, eggnog, etc. Nevertheless, alcohol consumption adds another layer of complexity and potential risks for employers. Alcohol often causes people to “let their hair down,” which can be bad news for the workplace. Letting one’s hair down can (and often does) lead to harassment, inappropriate comments, and many other potentially illegal behaviors.

If you decide to serve alcohol, you should consider a few things. You should limit the amount of alcohol an employee can consume. This can be accomplished by using a ticket-system, restricting each employee to a certain number of drinks. You should not serve alcohol-based punch or eggnog, which makes it difficult for employees to tell how much liquor they are consuming.

You should hire professional bartenders to serve beverages. You should close down the bar at least one hour prior to the end of the event. You should also consider having a drawing for a prize or some other activity to encourage people to stick around during the last hour.

Finally, make sure you have non-alcoholic beverages available as an option for employees who choose not to drink, or realize they have had enough for one night.

2.  Voluntary, Never Mandatory

If you decide to host a holiday party, attendance at the parties should be voluntary – not mandatory. The voluntary nature of the party should be explicitly stated, preferably in writing. You should not put pressure on employees to attend. When holiday parties are mandatory, employers face a greater risk of wage and hour and workers’ compensation claims. Also, since this is a party, you should refrain from turning the event into a de facto meeting – leave the business component out of it.

3.  This Is A (Work) Party

Holiday parties are often held offsite and after regular working hours. That is why it is critically important that employees must understand that work rules are still applicable. There are a few ways for you to relay this message to employees.

You can circulate a memo or email to all employees outlining the purpose of the event, its voluntary nature, and that professional behavior is mandatory. As an alternative, you might provide a refresher training session to all employees regarding discrimination, harassment, and other applicable company policies before the date of the event. This memo or training session will provide another reminder to employees of applicable policies. It should also add another level of insulation for you in the event of legal action.

4.  “Feed Me Seymour!”

You certainly do not want to serve alcohol to people on empty stomachs. So, once the decision is made to serve alcohol, you need to determine what kinds of food will be served. Serve foods that slow the absorption of alcohol, such as those high in protein or starch. Greasy or salty foods tend to encourage more alcohol consumption, so avoid them.

Also, some employees will have food preferences or allergies, some of which may be tied directly to a religious belief (Title VII), or a medical condition (Americans with Disabilities Act). Make sure you understand whether any accommodations are necessary by asking your guests ahead of time.

5.  Adults Need Chaperones, Too

Alcohol + adults = a potentially combustible environment. People tend to be more open, honest, and potentially inappropriate when they consume alcohol. Sometimes people forget (at least temporarily) that they are married, or that they have a significant other.

For these reasons, it makes sense to encourage employees to bring their significant others to the event. The hope is that these guests will encourage employees to be on their best behavior, and will reel in their spouses or significant others should they drink too much of the party juice.

You should also instruct some of your senior managers to refrain from drinking alcohol on the night of the event. Make sure at least one of them is stationed near the exit at the end of the party. This person will thank guests for coming to the event, but most importantly, make a final determination regarding whether employees are fit to drive themselves home.

6.  Uber. Lyft. Taxi. Private Drivers.

No matter how careful you handle serving alcohol, someone will consume too much at your party. That someone should not drive away from your party. What can you do to stay ahead of this potential problem?

There’s an easy answer: you should offer transportation from the event for your employees and guests. Some employers might get frustrated hearing this suggestion, figuring this is just another expense that will not be recouped. But, for at least two reasons, it is well worth the cost. First and foremost, it will enable you to protect your most important assets – your employees. The safety and wellbeing of your workers, their guests, and the general public should be on the forefront of your mind at all times. Second, it will provide another layer of insulation should any of your employees injure another person as a result of alcohol consumption. Many transportation companies offer group deals to defray the cost of this service.

7.  Social Media Could Make Your Party (In)Famous

We are living in an era where almost every person has a smartphone. Most people subscribe to some sort of social media platform. That said, there is a great chance that your company holiday party – in its entirety or in part – will be uploaded to Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any number of social media platforms.

As an employer, this sounds pretty scary for a number of reasons. If you have any reservations about adopting any of the suggestions listed above, just imagine how embarrassing (or legally troublesome) it would be to have your party broadcast to the world or digitally preserved for all time.

8.  Prompt Corrective Action

No matter how much you plan, bad things will happen. Sometimes an inebriated employee makes a racially, sexually or otherwise discriminatory comment, or does something that is generally unprofessional or inappropriate. Unfortunately, no matter how many steps you take to protect your interests, situations like this sometimes cannot be avoided.

Nevertheless, part of your obligation under Title VII is to make prompt corrective action in the event you become aware (directly or indirectly) of potentially troublesome behavior. You must ensure that management and executives attending these events are setting a good example. They also need to function as watchdogs on high alert for inappropriate behavior. The sooner this behavior is reported and investigated, the less likely you will face continuing legal exposure.

9.  Mistle-no

Finally, what’s the biggest mistake you can make? Hanging mistletoe! Do not use mistletoe as décor at your company party.

This article has covered many tips for mitigating exposure in a holiday party setting. None of these tips will guarantee that you will avoid legal action. However, implementing some or all of the tips discussed should reduce your risk of legal exposure.

Keep these guidelines in mind, so you and your employees can focus on enjoying the event. Happy Holidays!


Judge Blocks Overtime Rule Set to Take Effect December 1

On Tuesday, November 22 a federal judge issued a nationwide injunction blocking the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) from implementing its new overtime rule scheduled to take effect December 1, 2016.  The rule would have affected approximately 4 million executive, administrative and professional (“EAP”) employees, making them eligible for time-and-a-half pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 per week if their salary is below $913 per week ($47,476 per year).  The new threshold would have doubled the current threshold of $455 per week ($23,660 per year).

Read the full compliance alert…


IRS Provides a 30-Day Extension for Furnishing Forms 1095 and Extends Good Faith Transition Relief

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has released Notice 2016-70, which extends the deadline for furnishing Forms 1095-B and 1095-C to individuals from January 31, 2017 to March 2, 2017. The Notice did not delay the due date for filing the forms with the IRS, which remains February 28 if filing by paper, or March 31 if filing electronically.

Read the full compliance update now…

Post-Election: What Now for Obamacare?

The votes have been counted and Donald Trump is the president-elect and Republicans control Congress. Among the many questions around the proverbial watercooler is what now for “Obamacare”? While it is impossible for anyone to predict the future, we undertake to make a short, best guess about the future of the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).

Is repeal possible and what might be sticking around?  Click here to read our post-election results white paper for these answers and more…



Workplace Violence: Be Prepared Anywhere, Anytime


A community college in Roseburg, Oregon … a supermarket in Elkhart, Indiana … a health care clinic in Reno, Nevada …  a TV news station in Roanoke, Virginia … a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado … a shopping mall in Omaha, Nebraska.

Are you noticing a pattern here? If not, well, that’s entirely the point. As is tragically evidenced by recent news headlines, workplace violence can strike anywhere and at any time.

The above examples represent only the most sensational, recent incidents. Hundreds more occur regularly across the country. And the trend shows no signs of abating.

Those tasked with ensuring the safety of their employees, customers, and visitors — including risk managers and public safety officials — should be prepared with a comprehensive strategy that includes the following:

1. See something? Read something? Hear something? Say something!

Everyone should be mindful of their surroundings and the potential for an active shooter situation or other workplace violence threat. Put processes in place for individuals to report suspicious or potentially violent behavior to your human resources or security department, and/or law enforcement.

2. Know the drill.

Consult with local law enforcement and emergency responders now. Ensure that individuals in your organization understand their roles and those of law enforcement responders during an incident. Your plan should be specific to your work location. Take into account floor plans, the entire property/facility, adjoining locations and/or properties, and the surrounding area. Regularly practice workplace violence and lockdown procedures, as you would fire drills. Consider also conducting periodic tabletop exercises.

3. Get the word out.

Design a clear strategy for how you will communicate with each other, employees, students, customers, security, law enforcement, corporate headquarters, and other stakeholders during a potential or actual workplace violence incident.

4. Evacuate or lockdown.

Determine in advance the strategies for evacuation or lockdown. Identify at least two evacuation routes, meeting locations, and a method of accounting for all individuals. Consider that the right meeting location for a fire evacuation may not be suitable for a workplace violence incident. Understand your options when faced with an active shooter, whether inside or outside your facility.

5. Double-check your insurance coverage.

Review your insurance policy to be sure it’s adequate for workplace violence incidents. Your advisors can help ensure you respond promptly and appropriately to manage impacts and consequences effectively.

You’ll likely have little or no warning before a workplace violence incident; the sound of gunshots may be your first indication of a problem. And while nothing can fully prevent such threats, you can take action now to reduce the risk, better protect people, hasten recovery, and mitigate potential damage.

Author: Chandra Seymour

Personal Liability Cases on the Rise

In today’s litigious society, one lawsuit can do significant financial damage to even the wealthiest of individuals. Below are some examples of recent personal liability cases and the awards that resulted:

Texting while driving

A young driver was involved in a head-on collision killing a female student in her early-twenties. His cell phone records proved that several text messages were sent and received at the approximate time of the crash. The driver’s record also showed that this was not the first time he was engaging in dangerous driving behavior.

The family of the victim sued the young man for negligence. They also sued his father, claiming that as the owner of the vehicle he was negligent in entrusting his vehicle to his son in light of his driving record. A jury ruled in favor of the victim’s family.

Award total: $21,825,000

Working in the yard

While doing yard work in front of his home, a teenage boy was struck by a sport utility vehicle. His parents, individually and on behalf of their son, sued the driver alleging negligence. They claimed that she was under the influence of alcohol, drove at an excessive speed, failed to keep a proper lookout and failed to apply her brakes. The driver denied negligence and claimed that the boy was standing in the middle of the street outside of an intersection or marked crosswalk, and had negligently failed to yield to her right of way. After a bench trial, the judge found the driver negligent.

Award total: $12,518,888

A dangerous altercation

In an argument over an ex-girlfriend, a man lifted another man off the ground and dropped him on his neck. The altercation resulted in a neck fracture and paralysis from the neck down. The victim had multiple surgeries to fuse his spine and mend his esophagus, and spent weeks on a ventilator in a cast. He filed a lawsuit claiming that the man who caused his injury was negligent in throwing him to the ground using excessive force. He claimed damages for medical expenses, pain and suffering, permanent disability and disfigurement, lost income and depression. A judge ruled in favor of the plaintiff.

Award total: $20,705,000

Adequate liability protection is more important than ever.

Do you have adequate Personal Liability Coverage?  Contact your local MMA representative to discuss your personal profile.

Distracted driving: What could possibly happen?


Highway safety experts blame inattentive – or distracted – driving for 80 percent of all car accidents. So with just a few seconds of additional awareness of the road around us, we could potentially eliminate around 80 percent of crashes.

How can just a few seconds make a difference? Consider the distance traveled by a vehicle running down the highway at 60 mph, or one mile a minute. That’s one sixtieth of a mile per second, or about 88 feet. So much can happen in 88 feet. So much more can happen when a driver’s attention is somewhere other than the highway. A car with a distracted driver who fails to see stopped traffic ahead would travel nearly six car lengths in that one second.

Let’s look at some facts about distracted driving and do the math. How many seconds are your eyes (and mind) off the road when you drive? And what can happen in one second’s time?


We know all about phones and texting. But anything diverting our attention from the road is a distraction. All of these little distractions add up to create a lot of potential risk.

How many distractions do you have in the course of a single trip?

  • adjusting radios or other dashboard devices
  • listening to, looking at or adjusting GPS navigation systems
  • reading signs and looking at “TV-style” billboards
  • handling kids in the back seat
  • catching a falling beverage cup
  • eating/snacking while driving
  • simply daydreaming or just listening to the radio

In 2014, 3,179 people were killed and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers, according to Figures show that young drivers are especially prone to engaging in risky, distracted behavior according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But distraction is not just a problem for youthful drivers. A Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study funded by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and published in the Federal Register shows the likelihood of a crash caused by various tasks that take the driver’s eyes off the forward roadway. The odds ratio is the increased likelihood of being involved in a crash when compared to undistracted driving:


While statistics may show that sending or receiving a text message is one of the riskiest distractions since it takes the driver’s eyes off the road for about 5 seconds on average, imagine adding that to all these other distractions we deal with! At 45 mph you are covering the length a football field every 4.6 seconds. So much can happen around you in that short time span.

So the studies exist – and the stats are there – supporting the argument that distracted driving is extremely risky to yourself and others on the road. Consider ways to reduce distractions when you drive to improve safety for yourself, your passengers, other drivers and pedestrians.


Five Best Practices for Valuing Water Damaged Items:

“If it keeps on rainin’ levee’s goin’ to break. When the levee breaks I’ll have no place to stay.”

So go the lyrics in the blues classic, “When the Levee Breaks” about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Later popularized by Led Zeppelin, the song has unfortunately become relevant again with devastating floods striking the region in 2016.

In a span of eight days, more than 7 trillion gallons of water (more than three times as much as Hurricane Katrina) dumped on Louisiana and Mississippi, damaging 40,000 homes and costing local agriculture $110 million at last count. New estimates of catastrophic losses continue to rise.

Water can be a powerful destructive force, however more often than not, water-related damage is caused by human error from corroded plumbing, frozen pipes or faulty machinery than by cataclysmic rainstorms. One of our adjusters once discovered an entire closet of contents, dresses, shoes and belts frozen in a single block of ice.

Adjusting water damage claims poses some risks, so here are five ways adjusters can effectively manage them after major flooding events like Hurricane Matthew:

1. Safety is job number one

Water-damaged sites are a messy affair, often involving contaminants, rodents and other potential hazards. As such, it’s imperative to first establish the safety of the policyholder to determine if there is an emergency situation.

Safety must apply to the adjuster as well. In most water-damage cases, protective clothing such as a facemask and eye protection are necessary. Depending on the situation and potential exposure to toxins, adjusters may have to wear a half- or full-face mask with protective filters. Depending on the water involved and the scale, gloves, boots and possibly a Tyvek suit may be required.

2. Initial evaluation

On arrival, two pieces of information can help adjusters establish the scale of the damage — the source of the water, whether it’s from a flooded river, sewer backup or broken pipe, and the height to which the water rose.

When inspecting items to salvage, keep in mind the item’s porosity or ability to absorb moisture. Bookcases and other furniture made of porous pressed wood are usually not salvageable, while non-porous objects like glassware and ceramics are more likely candidates for recovery.

Non-porous items like children’s plastic toys should be discarded as they could harbor contaminants. It is better to be safe than sorry.


3. Walkthrough with the policyholder

A room-by-room inspection with the policyholder can yield a tremendous amount of useful information. Claims pros and claimants can collaborate on inventory, collecting individual items’ ages, prices and where they were purchased. High-value items that are less commonly found such as Oriental rugs and original artwork, may require pulling in outside experts.

Document the item’s identity or provenance, brand name, model numbers, composition materials, purchase price and where it was purchased. Size and construction material is essential for valuing furniture. Material also makes a big difference in the valuation of clothing.

Homeowners will sometimes start cleaning up before adjusters arrive and throw out damaged items before they’ve been properly recorded. Inquire if this is the case and if any items might have been missed.

The walkthrough allows the adjuster to review the recovery timeline with the insured. An estimate of how long the process will take and phone numbers to call with questions can be included in this review.

4. Diagramming, photographing and documenting

Drawing a diagram of the site is an excellent way of documenting the damage. Using the names of rooms as provided by the policyholder (for example, using “Mike’s room” instead of “Bedroom #1”) make them more identifiable and, likewise, make it easier to identify the contents contained in each.

Photographing the contents of a room is one of the most important steps in assessing water damage. “Freeze the loss” by taking plenty of pictures. Water-damaged items can be fragile and should be handled with care. Many claims pros working at water-damaged sites like to use voice recorders for logging inventory; that way, they can avoid using paper that may become damp.

5. Organizing the inventory

Items can be organized into groups of higher and lower values such as clothing, kitchen utensils, books, CDs, etc.  Furniture, appliances and electronics are typically itemized separately, and lower value items like toiletries, office supplies, cleaning supplies, holiday decorations and food can be grouped together. Sorting items in this manner makes it easier to discuss value estimates with the policyholder.

The catastrophic flooding in Louisiana and Mississippi underscores the fact that water damage is not a rare claim. Safely recording and assessing the damage at these sites is a necessary skill for all claim adjusters.


IRS Increases Health FSA Contribution Limit for 2017, Adjusts Other Benefit Limits

On October 25, 2016, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) released Revenue Procedure 2016-55, which raised the health Flexible Spending Account (FSA) salary reduction contribution limit to $2,600 for plan years beginning in 2017. The Revenue Procedure also released the cost-of-living (COLA) adjustments that apply to dollar limitations in certain sections of the Internal Revenue Code (Code).

Read the full compliance alert…