Having a workplace holiday party and celebrating the holidays with colleagues can be a great way to encourage team camaraderie, thank employees for their hard work and create a more festive atmosphere. However, if an employer is not cautious, it may find itself facing a lawsuit.
For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) recently sued a doctor’s office claiming it unlawfully terminated an employee for requesting a religious accommodation when she asked to be excused from attending the workplace holiday party that would subject her to “entertainment, immoderate drinking or dancing,” violating her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness.
Similarly, the EEOC recently sued a company that failed to address claims that a male store manager sexually assaulted a female employee and subjected her to unwelcome sexual advances and physical touching. The harassment escalated to sexual assault when the female employee found herself alone with the manager in his hotel room where he had invited staff to join him.
In order to minimize the potential for legal liability, make sure your holiday party runs smoothly and keep employees happy throughout the New Year by following these dos and don’ts:
Don’t Focus on Religion
When planning a holiday party, keep things light and festive with the focus off of religion and more on building camaraderie among the team. Otherwise, an employer risks making employees feel uncomfortable and this may lead to a religious discrimination, harassment or failure to accommodate claim.
Avoid overtly religiously symbols when decorating such as Christmas trees or mistletoe. Instead, it is best to stick to non-religious winter symbols such as snowflakes, snowmen and sleds. Provide activities, entertainment and music that is appropriate and festive, with broad appeal to a wide variety of employees.
Do Remind Employees that All Workplace Policies Remain in Effect
Even though the event may be held off-site and during nonworking hours, to reduce the risk of liability, notify supervisors and employees that all of the employer’s policies remain in effect and will be enforced, including those regarding:
Supervisors and employees should be advised to treat each other with respect and professionalism and avoid offensive, improper behavior.
Given the #MeToo era and the increasing number of harassment lawsuits, be especially careful about inappropriate conduct. What seems perfectly acceptable to one individual may be misinterpreted by another and quickly escalate into a harassment claim. Instruct supervisors to set a good example and identify any violations of workplace policies and bring them to management’s attention.
Don’t Make Attendance Mandatory
An employer should avoid making attending a holiday party mandatory. In the first place, some employees may not celebrate the holidays or their religion may forbid it. Others may have family obligations that prevent them from attending if the party is after working hours.
Mandatory attendance may also be risky and lead non-exempt employees to bring wage and hour claims that they are entitled to overtime. In addition, do not conduct any actual work-related activities at the party as all employees may not take part. For these reasons, it is best to schedule the holiday party outside of working hours and keep the usual work day intact.
Do Monitor Alcohol Intake
It is important to be especially cautious if choosing to serve alcohol at your holiday party as this may lead to a whole host of issues including potential injuries as well as harassing, improper and offensive conduct. Additionally, if an intoxicated employee leaves a workplace holiday party and gets into a drunk driving accident, the employer may liable.
If serving alcohol consider:
• Designating a management employee or someone at the venue to monitor alcohol intake;
• Limiting alcohol consumption by using drink tickets;
• Making sure all employees are completely sober before getting behind the wheel;
• Serving plenty of food to counter any alcohol consumption;
• Arranging to have the holiday party on a weekday so employees know they need to go to work the next day; and
• Arranging taxis or ubers home or hotel stays for employees who have overindulged.
Do Be Inclusive
Remember to be inclusive when it comes to having a workplace holiday party. Aim to include all employees, even those who telecommute. An employer should consider picking up travel costs for employees who work out of town, from home or in satellite offices.
If your company’s budget permits, consider inviting spouses or significant others. In fact, employees may be more likely to be on their best behavior in such situations. It is also important to be sensitive to the dietary needs and allergies of all employees and offer kosher, vegetarian and gluten-free food if needed.
Don’t Ignore Complaints
If an employer receives a complaint regarding discriminatory or harassing conduct at a holiday party, or inappropriate or offensive behavior by an employee or supervisor, the employer or HR must respond in a timely manner.
Make sure you document the complaint and initiate an investigation by gathering relevant evidence and interviewing all potential witnesses. Also, make every attempt to assess the facts and circumstances and come to a reasonable conclusion regarding what occurred. Finally, do not hesitate to impose appropriate disciplinary measures.