As people emerge from their turkey-induced haze, the holiday season is in full swing. With that, comes the much-anticipated company holiday party. Some employers may opt for a simple, yet classic, team lunch, where others may spend months planning an elaborate extravaganza complete with hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, and entertainment. While holiday parties provide an excellent reason to step away from the monotony of day-to-day life, they can also bring with them a host of employment-related issues employers should be on the lookout for.
Oftentimes, the presence of alcohol is a major contributor to holiday-related incidents. While employees may appreciate the opportunity to spend time with their colleagues outside of the normal work setting, an open bar can sometimes be a recipe for disaster. Over-imbibing can lead to claims of harassment or bullying, and can create liability for the employer, even if the event happens off-premises. Employers should carefully evaluate their workforce to determine whether serving alcohol at this year’s holiday party is wise, and how best to go about it. Perhaps offering limited drink tickets or closing the open bar early can help limit over-consumption, or maybe this year, you opt for an alcohol-free event, such as a celebratory breakfast, and avoid the risk altogether. Employers who opt to host on-premises should also carefully review any company handbooks and insurance policies to ensure compliance with any alcohol-related provisions. However you decide to handle, the employer who chooses to serve cups of holiday cheer should ensure they do so safely, and responsibly.
Another issue that can come up in the planning of holiday festivities involves the inclusivity aspect. Employers should take care to include all employees regardless of religious or ethnic backgrounds and avoid celebrations that focus too much on a singular religious holiday, thereby excluding a subset of the workforce. For those employers with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, perhaps the holiday season is a time to educate staff on the various holidays occurring during the winter, such as Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. Employers should also be prepared to promptly address any religious accommodation requests from employees seeking a modification to a standard policy, practice, or procedure to observe one of the religious holidays occurring over the winter season or attend religious services, and be aware of any potential wage and hour issues in the event the holiday party is mandatory for non-exempt employees, as that time spent at the party could be considered compensable work time.
While Human Resources may feel like they are playing the role of Scrooge or the Grinch at times, thoughtful planning on the front end when it comes to holiday festivities and observances will help employers avoid feeling like they’ve been trapped in the “airing of grievances” portion of the Constanza family “Festivus” following a disastrous holiday celebration. If you have any questions about holiday-related best practices, please contact Katie Campbell or another member of the firm’s Labor & Employment Practice Group.