Holiday Spirit or Bah-Humbug? A Festive Employer’s Guide to Celebrating the Season in the Office

By December 12, 2019 HR Blog

By Jennifer Jacobus, PHRca, SHRM-CP SDEA Director of HR Services.

In a world of political correctness, diversity, liability, and even wage and hour issues, many employers probably wish they could skip over the holiday season altogether.  Most employees however, look forward to this time of year, anticipating some holiday and/or vacation time, a holiday party, and celebration of their religious beliefs. With such a workplace meeting of personal practices and legal land mines, what could possibly go wrong? Here’s some advice from a Human Resources standpoint that will help employers avoid causing offense – or even litigation – and oversee a happy and compliant workforce during this festive time of year.

Decorating for the Holidays – It’s always fun to decorate the office for the holidays. This is a great opportunity to step away from the everyday grind and can be a fun way to promote teambuilding. Holiday decorating contests, for example, offer a way for everyone to showcase their unique style. While employees should be relatively free to decorate their office space or cubicle in a “reasonable” fashion that does not pose any safety issues or infringe on others’ rights, the rule for general office space decorating should be one of common sense.  Err on the side of caution and keep holiday decorations on the generic side: wreaths, greenery, and snowflakes are usually a safe bet, but steer clear of the live nativity scene!

Time Off – While more companies now offer holiday time off that exceeds the traditional Christmas Eve and Christmas Day option, most companies do not close down for Hanukkah, as an example. There are laws under both federal and state regulations that require employers to provide reasonable accommodations to employees based on religious needs.  Does this mean that some employees may get a paid day off on Christmas Day when the company is closed for business as well as additional religious holidays observed by those employees? Yes. Does this mean that the employer must pay for these additional days off? No. Company holiday closures and whether or not employees are paid for those holidays is at the employer’s discretion.  Employers are not legally required to offer paid holidays, so those employees who wish to observe religious holidays other than those offered by the company should be allowed the time off (as long as it does not pose an undue hardship to the business) and be given the option to take it without pay or to draw upon accrued vacation or paid time off (PTO).

Holiday Parties – This is where many companies struggle the most – what to do, if anything? What time of day?  What to serve?  Are guests, spouses, and significant others invited?  And of course, whether or not to serve alcohol! All are legitimate and important questions. Based on what source you refer to, you will find varying opinions and information on what companies are doing as it pertains to a holiday party.  Robert Half/Office Team states that employers are “upping the budget” on holiday parties; Challenger Gray & Christmas report that 2018 shows “the fewest planned parties since the recession recovery”; and Bloomberg reports that #MeToo may be “curbing corporate holiday parties”.

Let’s get back to the biggest concern – whether or not to serve alcohol at your holiday gathering. At the bottom line, the safest bet is to make the party a “dry” event.  Blame it on HR if you have to—they already have a reputation as the party-poopers, right?  If a non-alcoholic event just isn’t going to fly, consider these tips:

  • Provide a “no-host” or cash bar. This way, the company is not subsidizing the alcohol. This will reduce liability, but not eliminate it.
  • Consider distributing drink tickets—two per person, for example.
  • Limit the timeframe during which the bar is open and close it well before the party concludes.
  • Ensure that there is plenty of food served and that non-alcoholic beverages, including coffee, are made available at no cost.
  • Monitor employee behavior and provide services for employees to get safe transportation home, i.e., Uber or a taxi service.

Additionally, make it clear to employees that the holiday party is completely voluntary; send pre-party reminders on company policy related to harassment and appropriate workplace conduct; consider hosting a holiday lunch instead of a dinner; and make sure that all holiday parties are non-denominational—make the celebration about the end of the year and looking forward to a prosperous one to come.

This should be a time of year to reflect and make plans and goals for the New Year, not a time to be dealing with disgruntled employees or, worse yet, a disgruntled employee’s attorney.

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