Holiday Party Hazards for Employers to Avoid

While a workplace holiday get together may be a good idea to thank employees for a job well done and encourage camaraderie and good cheer, a festive celebration may carry a number of risks from employers. From potential harassment claims to religious discrimination to the increased risk of drinking and driving, an employer must be careful and take specific precautions in order to protect itself. When planning a workplace holiday celebration keep these tips in mind.

 

Notify Employees that All Workplace Polices Are in Place

It is important for employers and supervisors to recognize that even though the holiday celebration may be outside of working hours or off the employer’s premises, all of the employer’s policies prohibiting discrimination, harassment and retaliation as well as those regarding employee dating and relationships, employee conduct and dress codes remain in effect.

Given the #MeToo era and the increasing number of harassment lawsuits, employers must be especially cautious about employee behavior and warn everyone about inappropriate conduct. What seems perfectly acceptable to one individual may be misinterpreted by another and very quickly escalate into a harassment claim. Everyone should be on their best behavior and engage in conduct that is proper and professional.

Make Sure Supervisors Set a Good Example

Supervisors should set a good example for the rest of the workforce by making sure to enforce the employer’s policies. Special attention should be paid to sexual harassment which may be more prevalent in a relaxed social atmosphere. Train management and supervisors to identify instances of inappropriate conduct and report this misconduct to HR, or the employer, so that violations may be addressed.

Supervisors also should stress to their team at all times that this is a work event, and employees should behave accordingly.

Be Careful with Alcohol and Substance Abuse

If an employer decides to serve or permit alcohol it is critical to take the appropriate precautions and monitor intake so employees do not become too intoxicated. It is best practice to designate a management employee to carefully watch employees and make sure they act appropriately.

Providing drink tickets and limiting the number of drinks is another option. Additionally, any employee who attempts to drive must be completely sober. If an intoxicated employees leave the party and has an accident, injuring themselves or a third party or property, the employer may be on the hook for negligence. To minimize risk, it may be a good idea to host an afternoon affair, a party not on a Friday night or host the event at an alternative venue, such as an ice skating rink, where employees are less likely to drink heavily.

Additionally, as more and more states legalize marijuana for both medical and recreational purposes, an employer should clearly communicate that use of marijuana or any other controlled substance while at a work-related holiday celebration is strictly prohibited as it may endanger employee safety and impair judgment.

Do Not Focus on Religion

When planning any holiday celebration, keep the tone light and festive and avoid overly religious symbols such as Christmas trees, nativity scenes and mistletoe when it comes to party decorations as well as overly religious music as this may lead to a religious discrimination or harassment claim. It is best to use non-religious winter symbols such as snowflakes, snowmen and sleds to ensure that all employees feel comfortable. It may also be a good idea to engage in team building activities that can mix it up and build camaraderie among different individuals who may not normally socialize.

Make Sure Attendance Is Not Required

For wage and hour purposes, employees should not be required to attend a company’s holiday party. Some employees may not want to attend for religious reasons or family reasons and the employer must accept this. Others may not be interested in socializing with co-workers, and this should not be held against them.

Mandatory attendance may also be risky and lead to wage and hour claims from employees who are non-exempt and may claim they are entitled to overtime. It is therefore a good idea to hold the party outside of working hours so it does not impact workplace obligations and overtime issues are avoided.

Be Inclusive of All Employees

When celebrating the holidays, an employer should take the individual needs and concerns of all employees into account. This includes the dietary and allergy needs of employees who may need to be provided with vegetarian, kosher and gluten-free foods.

Activities, entertainment and music should be appropriate and festive and not offensive. If an employer invites spouses or significant others, understand that some employees may have a same-sex spouse or significant other. An employer should also consider including everyone in the celebration including gig workers, independent contractors and remote employees. Make sure to thank everyone for a job well done and express gratitude for their contributions.

Handle Complaints in a Timely manner

Finally, if the employer knows or should know of any complaints that arise at a holiday party, it should address them in a timely manner. Once on notice, the employer has a legal duty to follow up on any inappropriate conduct and document the complaint. The employer may also want to consider initiating an investigation and imposing interim or disciplinary measures if warranted.

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