Holiday Parties

Don't Let Your Holiday Party Cheer Steer You Into Court

Don't Let Your Holiday Party Cheer Steer You Into Court
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The holidays can be a wonderful time of religious, cultural and seasonal celebrations with family, friends and business colleagues.

It's sad but true, though, that the confluence of religious expression, social interaction and alcohol consumption can also result in a wonderful January for plaintiffs’ lawyers. So here I've answered 10 questions employers might have to minimize the risk that your November or December dreams will be a January nightmare.

Related: The Best (And Only) Tips You Need for the Office Holiday Party 

1. How should the company refer to the period?

Generally, it is best to refer to the time of the year as the holiday season. It's more than OK to mention Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and other holidays. Diversity is about inclusion not exclusion. There is no need to remove Christmas from the holiday season. Just make sure you reference other holidays, too.

2. What type of decorations belong in an office? 

I heard someone complain about a Christmas tree in the office reception area. Thank you for sharing, but again cultural diversity does not mean eliminating Christmas from the decorations (says the Jewish guy!). Add a menorah and a Kwanza basket.

Did you forget a holiday?Ask for suggestions in advance when it comes to decorations.

3. Can employee decorating be curbed? 

Some employers might want to know if they can limit the decorating and posting of symbols by employees. The answer is yes, but I advise limiting not banning. Drawing lines can be hard but that’s what smart people do. Allowing someone to have a small menorah on his desk is fine. If it has lighted candles, that’s a different story. Of course, you cannot discriminate based on the religion itself.

4. Can a holiday party not exclude someone?  

Not all employees celebrate holidays in December and some individuals do not celebrate the holidays at all. Frame the party as a seasonal celebration during which you share the joy of the holidays celebrated at the time of year by some. But make sure you wish well to all and acknowledge those who do not celebrate holidays now or otherwise.

Related: 7 Ways to Stay Out of Trouble During Your Holiday Office Party

5. Should you encourage attendance at the holiday party? 

Be careful. If nonexempt employees feel compelled to attend the company's party, they may have an argument that they must be paid for their time. Again, make clear attendance is strictly voluntary. Of course, they should be paid during party if it takes place during regular working hours

6. What are the risks involved in gift giving?

Gifts are great until they are not. Every year there is always someone who buys a peer -- or worse yet a subordinate -- something sexual or suggestive, such as thong. Remind employees about what kind of gifts are  inappropriate. This is particularly true if you, as the employer, are sponsoring the exchange.

7. Can the risk of serving alcohol be limited? 

Make clear that minors cannot drink and that adults cannot provide them drinks. Find other ways to minimize (not eliminate) the risk of allowing non-minors to drink. Serve nonalcoholic beverages, provide plenty of food, don’t allow self-service. Ask the servers to flag issues aggressive. Consider cab vouchers for those who cannot drive (without their having to disclose their identity).

8. How can the risk of harassing conduct be minimized? 

Use of alcohol does not excuse sexual comments, bawdy jokes or offensive dancing.  You cannot blame it on Jack Daniels, Jim Beam or Old Grand Dad! Provide guidance in advance that your nonharassment policy applies to the holiday party. Respond proactively to inappropriate behavior, even if no complaint is filed. To see and ignore is to condone.

9. Is giving a holiday bonus in the clear? 

If you can afford holiday bonuses, please give them (subject to certain legal restraints). But if you give them, just keep in mind that, depending on certain factors, you may need to count them in determining a nonexempt employee’s regular rate for overtime purposes. Yes, in some circumstances, you may need to pay overtime on the bonus.

10. Can an employer avoid divides that surface at this time?

Consider a corporate donation to a noncontroversial charity. There are many great choices but Leo, Scotty and Finny (my feline friends) want me to remind you of animal rescue causes.

If you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanza, I wish you a peaceful and meaningful holiday that corresponds with your faith. If you celebrate another holiday, I apologize for not referencing it by name, but I wish you a peaceful and meaningful holiday, too. If you celebrate no holidays or a holiday at another time of year, I wish you well just the same.

Related: 4 Ways to Avoid Holiday-Party Mishaps