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Holiday Parties And Other Holiday Season Concerns

Posted November 2018 by S. Ward Heinrichs

Holiday Parties And Other Holiday Season Concerns

We are in the holiday season again. Many employers want to sponsor parties to thank employees for hard work, to promote comradery, and to celebrate the season. Those are good things and are worth supporting, but holiday parties can breed work place liability.

In addition, employers often face other holiday season issues. Employees may want time off to accommodate their religious practices. Holiday decorations can create religious issues. Of course, watch out for mistletoe!

The two major issues related to holiday parties are sexual harassment and alcohol. In past articles, I have highlighted facts about naughty Santa Clauses. Those cases might convince you to not have an employee Santa, especially if Santa likes to drink! If you have a Santa, the employer should discuss what the employer expects Santa to do and not do. During any event, do not decorate with mistletoe. Innocent fun is OK, but mistletoe can easily put employees in awkward situations.

If an employer mandates attendance at a holiday party, employees can argue that they should be paid to attend. Even when employers say in writing that they are not mandatory, office pressure to attend can make them mandatory. Truly voluntary functions usually will insulate the employer from wage and other types of liability.

Drinking and driving after a holiday party can create employer liability depending on the circumstances. To avoid that, consider having a lunch party, but such parties may require wage payment, if they are not voluntary.

Below are some suggestions that can help employers avoid holiday party liability:

1.   Choose to not serve alcohol.
2.   Do not serve underaged employees alcohol.
3.   Limit the amount employees can drink.
4.   Have a professional alcohol caterer screen for intoxication.
5.   Only give out a limited number of drink tickets.
6.   Have employees pay for the drinks they consume.
7.   Arrange for alternative transportation.
8.   Provide discounted rates at the hotel where the party is located.
9.   Attendance should be voluntary.
10. Enforce an end time of the party.
11. Limit the amount of shop talk at the party.
12. Send written notice that you expect good behavior.
13. Don’t ask employees to perform special functions at the party.
14. Invite the families of the employees.
15. Hold the party away from the work site.
16. Make sure that sexual harassment training is up-to-date.
17. Make clear that sexual harassment at the party will not be tolerated.
18. Harassment policies should cover off location events.
19. Hold the event after hours or on a weekend.
20. Hold a voluntary party during the lunch hour.
21. Don’t take attendance.
22. Provide plenty of non-alcoholic beverages.
23. Investigate complaints about party events as seriously as you would investigate other work place complaints.
24. Do not promote employee after parties.
25. Make sure clients don’t harass your employees.
26. Women can harass at company parties too.

Freedom of religion is a protected right. Company holiday displays should avoid supporting one religion over another. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that holiday trees are secular in nature, but combining them with religious themes or ornaments can turn them into a symbol. Because workers have individually protected religious rights, employers may allow employees to decorate their personal work spaces as they see fit, but be careful about appearing to support one religion over another. An employer may bar religious displays at work when they create an undue hardship or are public displays that imply employer promotion of a single religion.

Employers may need to accommodate employees who have religious based requirements. Consider giving time off to employees who are compelled to attend religious events during work hours. At the very least, enter into an interactive process to determine what accommodations might work. Of course, accommodating the needs of only one religious group can harass other groups or could be seen as a failure to accommodate. If an accommodation poses and undue hardship, then the employer need not allow it, but discuss the situation with the employee and try to find an accommodation that does not cause undue hardship. Be thoughtful and fair when making these decisions.

Holiday celebration and parties pose risks for employers, but proper planning can greatly reduce those risks.

S. Ward Heinrichs, Esq.
Employment Law Office of Ward Heinrichs
4565 Ruffner Street, Suite 207
San Diego, CA 92111
(858) 408-7543 (fax)

Employment Law Office of WARD HEINRICHS

4565 Ruffner St. Suite 207 San Diego 92111


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