Author: Beth Zoller, XpertHR Legal Editor

As the holiday season rolls around with the smell of pine trees in the air and smoke billowing from chimneys, a new crop of issues arise which challenge employers. Among them is deciding how the holiday should be celebrated in the workplace - specifically: (i) whether, when and how to host a company holiday party; and (ii) whether the employer will permit festive decorations to be displayed at work.

Holiday Parties

To ensure that employer-sponsored holiday parties go smoothly and minimize the risk of liability, employers should take the following approach:

  • Seek to minimize employer liability for inappropriate workplace conduct such as sexual harassment and offensive and harassing behavior by controlling employee alcohol intake and keeping the atmosphere professional at all times. Employers should make sure to remind employees of the employer's policies against sexual harassment as well as any employee conduct and employee dating policies.
  • Reduce the risk of employer liability for negligence and workers' compensation claims by employees by providing a safe environment which the consumption of alcohol is carefully monitored and no employee is allowed to drive after drinking too much.
  • Host an inclusive event which takes into consideration employees of all faiths and creates an atmosphere which is spirited but not overly religious in nature. Employers should pick an ADA accessible venue and be careful to avoid music and entertainment choices that could be viewed as offensive or too religious. All of this could potentially lead to discrimination claims. Employers should also consider employee dietary restrictions and include kosher foods, non-pork and vegetarian items.
  • Consider whether employee attendance at a holiday party will be regarded as compensable work time and whether employees will be entitled to overtime.

Considering these issues beforehand should dramatically reduce the risk that the employer will be sued by an employee for conduct occurring at a workplace holiday celebration.

For more information on this topic, refer to the following XpertHR Resources:

Employer-Sponsored Charitable and Social Events

Employee Management > Employee Handbooks - Work Rules - Employee Conduct > Office Parties and Work Related Social Functions

Risk Management - Health, Safety, Security > Employee Health > Work-Sponsored Events and Parties

Employee Management > Employee Discipline

Holidays Decorations and Celebrations in the Workplace

Employers may also have to consider whether or not the employer will display any holiday decorations or permit employees to engage in a display of their faith during the holidays. Employers who want to display poinsettias or Christmas lights should consider whether their employees will be offended and claim this is discriminatory or secular in nature. Employers may already have an office decorations policy in place and/or may choose to deal with situations on a case by case basis. Instead of permitting employees to display religious imagery such as a small Christmas tree or Menorah at work, some employers may want to consider hosting a workplace get together where employees are asked to bring in a food representative of their heritage. Allowing employees to display their religion at work may show that the employer supports and values diversity in the workplace. Whatever the employer decides, it is important to be inclusive and seek to prevent claims of discrimination.

Additional Resources

How to Deal With an Employee Who Wants to Display Religious Imagery in the Workplace

May an employer prohibit an employee from displaying religious imagery at his or her desk or workstation?

Employee Management > EEO - Discrimination

Employee Management > Employee Handbooks - Work Rules - Employee Conduct > Employee Decorations in Office/Cubicle Areas

Religious Accommodation Policy