How to Keep Your Holiday Party off of the Naughty List

by McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC
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With the holiday season officially upon us, many employers are finalizing plans to host a party for their employees.  These festivities offer a time for colleagues to celebrate the year’s accomplishments, to extend season’s greetings, and to bond with one another in a less formal environment.  Sometimes, though, the holiday cheer can turn into a nightmare for employers.

By keeping an eye out for the many issues that may arise during an office holiday party, and by sticking to a few simple rules, you can ensure that your organization stays on the “nice” list this year.

Remember that Holidays Aren’t the Same for Everyone

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and many state laws, including the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, protect employees from discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, and religion, among other things.  Unfortunately, holiday celebrations have landed some employers in legal hot water during the most wonderful time of the year, including: disciplining a Muslim employee for refusing to participate in Christmas activities (EEOC v. Norwegian Am. Hosp.) and forcing a Jehovah’s Witness employee to use vacation time to skip a holiday party (Westbrook v. NC A&T State Univ.).  You can avoid these potential problems by taking the following steps:

  • Hold holiday parties off-premises and during non-work hours if possible.
  • Make attendance optional. If the party is held outside of work hours and optional, then employees who may not celebrate holidays for religious or ethnic reasons can miss the party without forfeiting pay or suffering discipline.
  • Consider offering a “holiday party” or “end of year party” instead of a celebration linked to a particular religious observance. Although you may not get sued for simply having a “Christmas Party” or “Hanukkah Party,” adding religious overtones to your celebration may leave some workers feeling alienated or unwelcome.
  • If an employee has a religious or cultural objection to participating in your company’s holiday celebration, explore whether there’s a reasonable accommodation that will alleviate that employee’s concerns.

Keep an Eye Out for Bad Santas

Cultural and religious issues aren’t the only ones that can cause headaches for employers this time of year. In Brennan v. Townsend & O’Leary Enterprises, Inc., an employer held a holiday party for its employees.  A supervisor dressed as Santa Claus and asked his female subordinates to sit on his lap while he asked questions about their love lives.  One female employee sued on the basis of sexual harassment.  Ultimately, the case went to trial, where a jury awarded the employee $250,000.  The verdict was overturned on appeal, but the employer’s legal costs in defending the claim figure to be astronomical.

Work to prevent similar unfortunate scenarios by reminding employees that while holiday parties are meant to be fun and informal, they are still work-related functions and employment policies, including your anti-harassment policy, apply.  At your party, everyone should treat each other with same dignity and respect as they do during a normal workday.  Employees should be encouraged to report any questionable behavior so that it can be immediately corrected if necessary.  If you follow our blog, you already know that your workplace should be free from sexual harassment; your holiday party should be too!

If you’re Serving Egg Nog (or Other Alcoholic Beverages)…

Many employers choose to serve alcohol to add to the cheer and festive atmosphere at their holiday parties.  There’s usually nothing wrong with this from a legal perspective, and employees often appreciate the ability to enjoy an adult beverage while having a good time with work colleagues.  Serving alcohol at a work function does have its risks, though.  For instance, personal inhibitions often dissolve the more one drinks.  So what can you do to slow employees down while still keeping the party going?  Well…

  • Offer a certain number of drink tickets to each employee. By limiting the number of drinks available to your workers, you’re taking a big step toward keeping someone from drinking too much.
  • Fill your drink menu with beverages that contain relatively low amounts of alcohol. Stick to beer and wine, and leave the hard stuff at home.  Also offer plenty of non-alcoholic drink choices.
  • Make food available to help slow the absorption of alcohol.
  • Consider finding a few volunteers who will not drink (good luck!) and monitor the party. These folks can see whether someone has had too much to drink and help arrange for cabs and/or designated drivers.
  • Close the bar well before the event is over. Allow an hour or so for employees to continue mingling after last call.
  • Provide some form of transportation to and from the event.

Although there are ways for your festivities to turn into trouble, you certainly don’t need to be a Grinch to avoid the hassle.  Just remember that establishing and following a set of reasonable ground rules will foster a safe and happy holiday event for everyone.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC | Attorney Advertising

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