How to Have a Happy Holiday: Seasonal Workplace Risks your Company Should Avoid

BY Pam Krivda
12/19/2018 - HVAC Operations

HARDI HR Consultant Pam Krivda, Esq. shares some tips to avoid HR hiccups this holiday season.

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Each year, holiday celebrations often extend into the workplace with office parties, gift exchanges, decorations, and holiday apparel. These festive events can present employers with employment-related liability issues, including allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination, hostile work environment, bullying, and other misconduct, as well as injuries and workplace accidents.

The first thing you should do before the holiday festivities begin is set clear requirements with employees. Think about the message your company is sending regarding holiday events. Of course, your company wants employees to enjoy themselves and celebrate the season; however, you want to remind employees that the company requires every employee to act professionally and to abide by all company policies.

You can avoid workplace liability without spoiling the holiday cheer by following these best practices with common holiday activities.

Holiday Parties:

The two main risks with holiday parties are sexual harassment and drinking and driving issues. The United States Department of Labor has said that holding an office holiday party with improper use of alcohol can render employers vulnerable to liability under multiple areas of the law, including tort laws, workers’ compensation, or employment discrimination laws.

Before hosting a holiday celebration, remind employees of the company’s discrimination, non-harassment, and alcohol and drug policies. Consider including a company statement on a holiday party invitation or circulating a reminder to all employees about the responsibility to drink only in moderation and to not drive after drinking. You might consider reimbursing for taxis or Ubers. Employers should also ensure any holiday apparel complies with the dress code. Additionally, emphasize to management employees and supervisors that they must lead by good example in their conduct at holiday parties.

Consider the location and timing of the holiday party. By holding an event off-site, the liability may be on the restaurant rather than the company, depending upon the state law. Because employees may not conduct themselves in the same manner as they do at work, especially if alcohol is served, a luncheon may be more appropriate than an evening party.

Gift Exchanges:

Employers who permit workplace gift exchanges should remind employees that everyone must be treated respectfully during the exchange, and only workplace- appropriate gifts may be selected. Employers must ensure that individuals who exchange gifts do not cause discrimination or retaliation issues. Again, consider sending a reminder to employees about the company’s policies on discrimination and retaliation, as well as a statement reminding employees to behave professionally.

Time off Requests:

Employers must accommodate an employee’s sincerely held religious beliefs, including holiday observances, unless doing so would impose an undue hardship. This includes accommodating an employee’s request for time off during the holidays for religious observances, often with schedule changes or shift switches.

Holiday Decorations:

Employers who decorate common areas during the holidays should avoid the appearance of endorsing one religion over another. For example, displaying only nativity scenes could be perceived as favoring Christianity while excluding other religions. Instead, non-religious decorations, like gingerbread houses, candy canes, and snowflakes are recommended. Note that the EEOC generally views the Christmas tree as a non-religious symbol.

By following these best practices, employers can enjoy the holiday season while mitigating potential liability.

You are receiving this article as a HARDI subscriber. If you have any questions regarding this article or your company’s holiday practices, please contact Pamela S. Krivda at Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.