Holiday Celebrations: Eat, Drink, Be Merry But… BEHAVE YOURSELF

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As the holiday season approaches and as we look forward to celebrating with our friends and colleagues, employers must keep in mind the “do’s and don’t’s” of office holiday parties. With some careful planning employers can avoid or minimize the post-holiday party headaches and the potential legal claims and liabilities that could follow.

It is also important to remember that in our diverse culture and workplace, there are many who may not share the same beliefs and traditions, so it is important to be aware of such differences and celebrate accordingly.

Below are a few guidelines and suggestions for Holiday Season Best Practices.

Tip 1: To Party or Not to Party: Alternatives to the Traditional Holiday Celebration

It is becoming more common to do away with the traditional holiday party, which can be expensive, time consuming, and may not even be something your employees enjoy. Consider celebrating the holidays by organizing a day of volunteering at a senior center, wrapping gifts for the less fortunate, or participating in an “adopt a family” event. Or plan a family-friendly event such as a day at an amusement park, bowling, or a mini-golf outing. These types of activities allow employees to get into the holiday spirit without the higher-risk party atmosphere.

Tip 2: Charitable Giving at Holiday Event

Prior to the party, have the employees select a charitable organization that they want to help, organize a gift-giving opportunity for the employees who can make donations, or bring gifts to wrap during the party. This can help employee morale by providing employees an opportunity to give back during this holiday time.

Tip 3: Recognize Other Religious Beliefs or Non-Beliefs

As cliché as this sounds, the event should not be referred to as a “Christmas” Party. Though some rebuke this change in greeting, the phrase “happy holidays” has been perceived as the politically correct alternative to “Merry Christmas” when one wishes to extend good wishes without risking religious offense.  Like a generic holiday greeting, the office celebration should be inclusive of all “holy day” observances and be referred to as a “holiday” party.

Some employees may not observe any type of holiday or other celebratory event and those beliefs are to be acknowledged. No employee should feel or be compelled to participate in a gathering that is against their beliefs or non-beliefs no matter what the event is called.

Tip 4: Limit Holiday “Spirits”
A little too much “celebrating” can result in inappropriate conduct resulting in claims of sexual harassment, or alcohol-related driving incidents/accidents. These situations can quickly destroy whatever goodwill and appreciation a party was designed to demonstrate and can result in substantial liability for the employer, and possibly for the employees involved in such misconduct.
Remind employees that, while you encourage everyone to have a good time, your company’s normal workplace standards of conduct will be in force at the party and misconduct at or after the party can result in disciplinary action.
Also, as the holiday season amplifies the threat of drunk driving, steps should be taken to avoid the potential liability for employee/alcohol related accidents. The safest approach is not to serve alcohol, especially if the celebration is during the day and on company premises. But, if alcohol is served, several steps can be taken to limit potential liability:
  • Limit the amount of alcohol available. Do not have an open bar. Do not have co-workers serving co-workers. 
  • Hold parties off business premises and shift the responsibility for serving alcohol to liquor licensees and professional bartenders.
  • Be certain to have lots of nonalcoholic beverages so employees have a choice.
  •  Serve lots of food.
  • Encourage the use of ride-sharing or make other arrangements for anyone leaving the party who may need a safe ride. The cost of an Uber, Lyft or taxi pales in comparison to the immeasurable cost of a drunk‑driving tragedy.
  • Stop serving drinks at least one hour before the function is scheduled to end.
  • Remind employees that attendance is strictly voluntary, it is not a requirement of employment, and that there is no pressure or expectation that they attend.
  • Allow spouses or significant others to attend which may decrease the likelihood of over‑indulgence of alcohol and the potential for resulting misconduct.
Tip 5:  Appoint Party “Supervisors”

All Executives, Managers and Supervisors should be expected to set the example, and to pay attention for signs of uncontrolled, unprofessional and potentially liability inducing conduct. They should react quickly, quietly and with discretion. Executives, Managers and Supervisors should also be advised that they are not to attend any “post party” parties with their subordinates. The executive or management team should mingle throughout the party to check on party behavior.

Tip 6: No Bad Santa or Mistletoe At The Party:
Do not even consider hanging mistletoe at the party as this will only provide an excuse or invitation for employees to get “too friendly” with each other.
If music is played during the party, make sure that the songs do not include any suggestive lyrics. No “kissing Santa” holiday songs should be played.
If there will be a gift exchange, make sure that you notify employees that the gifts must be appropriate and in line with the company’s policies on sexual harassment and workplace conduct.

Remind employees to dress appropriately at the party to avoid any inappropriate or suggestive attire.

Tip 7: Enjoy the Holidays!

This Newsletter is intended as a brief summary of employment law.  While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained herein, it is not intended to serve as “legal advice,” or to establish an attorney-client relationship.  If additional information is needed on any of the topics contained herein, please contact our office. All rights reserved.  ©2018.