10 Ways to Celebrate the Holidays and Minimize Legal Risk
Read this checklist before spiking the punch at your company's holiday party.
The rapidly-approaching holiday season can be the most wonderful time of the year, but it also poses legal and employee relations challenges to entrepreneurs of all sizes. But most of these challenges can be mitigated with some thoughtful planning. So here's a checklist of issues to minimize the risk that your December celebrations will result in January claims.
1. Don't eliminate Christmas.
Don't eliminate Christmas from the holiday season, says this Jewish guy. It's a beautiful holiday that should be celebrated. And a Christmas tree is just fine, too. But what about those who don't celebrate Christmas? Read on.
2. Include other holidays.
General rule for the holiday season: it's about inclusion, not exclusion. Rather than excluding Christmas, recognize other holidays, such as Hanukkah and Kwanza. Consider a menorah and Kwanza basket along with the Christmas tree.
3. What holiday did you forget?
You don't know what you don't know. Profound. So, ask. Ask employees if there is a holiday that they would like to see included in the celebration (and that includes decorations).
4. What should you call your party?
"Holiday party" is the most inclusive term. Make your party more inclusive by having decorations and the music reflect diverse holidays.
Think also about your choice of decorations and songs. Those that are religious are more appropriate for religious celebrations (or for religious employers).
What if someone is offended by Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Coming to Town"? May that be your biggest problem.
5. Should you serve alcohol?
Never serve it to minors. Make clear adults who get it for them will be fired. As for adults, take steps to minimize abuse, such as limiting drinks, providing lots of food or even making employees pay for alcohol and then donating the money to charity.
Even with restrictions, assume some people will abuse the alcohol you serve. Consider having cab vouchers ready for them without management knowing who the users are. This increases the likelihood that those who need vouchers will use them.
6. What about harassment?
December parties inevitably bring January claims about wandering hands, loose lips and... I'll stop there. Remember, Jack Daniels is no defense.
This year, the EEOC has called out that alcohol is a risk factor when it comes to harassment, so focus proactively on this risk. Remind your employees that your harassment policy applies to the party. And make sure to name "designated watchers."
Finally, if you are in management and you see or hear unacceptable comments or conduct, you must intervene. To see and ignore is to condone and increases your legal exposure.
7. What about the after-party?
To be blunt: no good comes from after-parties. Unless, you consider claims arising out of the after-party good. Make clear you are not sponsoring any after-party and do not allow employer money to be used for it. And never attend if you are in management. Attending is about as safe as walking on railroad tracks
8. How about gifts?
Here, too, anticipate the inappropriate. Remind employees that your harassment policy applies here, also. Stay away from the sexual or suggestive, such as gifts from Victoria's Secret. Rule of thumb: if the gift is appropriate primarily for someone with whom you are intimate, don't give it to an employee.
9. What about greetings?
It's best to be general with your holiday greetings unless you know otherwise. The default should be "Happy Holidays." But if you know someone is Christian, by all means wish that person a Merry Christmas. I know I do.
And I like when people wish me a "Happy Hanukkah" because they know I am Jewish. I am less thrilled if they are making assumptions. Make sure your employees don't guess or assume anyone's faith. Stereotypical assumptions here can cause myriad problems, including with customers.
10. Don't forget the FLSA.
The Fair Labor Standards Act applies all year long, even during the holidays. So, don't require or strongly suggest that employees attend parties outside of working hours. If you do, you may have to pay them to be miserable. Plus, if people don't want to come, do you really want their misery there?
With all the difficulties that can accompany the holidays in the workplace, it's a time to remember how lucky we are to be alive, and to love and to be loved. May peace be with you. Shalom.
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