It’s the most wonderful time of the year…except for HR departments who are unprepared to navigate the minefield of issues surrounding holiday parties and celebrations. While your company may be dreaming of an inclusive, tasteful acknowledgement of the winter holidays, you could wind up facing sexual harassment, religious discrimination, workers’ compensation, and wage and hour claims without expert advice from legal counsel. Here are some helpful hints for enjoying the holiday season while avoiding potential HR pitfalls:
All holiday-related events, celebrations, decorations, and activities must be purely voluntary. Not all employees celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. Activities such as decorating a tree or participating in a gift exchange may make some employees feel uncomfortable, or may actively conflict with an employee’s religious beliefs. If you allow these activities in the workplace, they should be organized by employees as an optional event. Managers must make sure that employees know that they may choose to participate in these activities, but they will not be penalized in any way for opting out.
Time spent participating in employer-mandated activities will also be considered compensable time. If your employees are required to attend an event, even if it is offsite or during nonworking hours, you will be required to pay employees for their time. To avoid having to compensate employees for attending a holiday celebration, the best practices are to have the event offsite during nonworking hours, insure that employees know that participation is purely voluntary, and refrain from any discussion or activities that could be considered business-related, or require the employee to act for the benefit of the business.
Holiday parties can be a fun way to reward employees for a job well done and encourage camaraderie among coworkers. Alcohol consumption is often a part of these celebrations, but carries a liability risk for employers. If you choose to serve alcohol, here are some tips for avoiding liability related to alcohol use:
· Have the party offsite at an event that serves alcohol, or hire a bartender or catering company to provide and serve alcohol
· Include food and entertainment, to take to focus off of alcohol consumption
· Provide each employee with a set number of drink tickets to prevent overconsumption
· Provide transportation home for employees (reimburse employees for cabs, Lyft, Uber, etc.)
· Enlist several overtime-exempt management employees to watch for employees who may have had too much to drink, and encourage employees to come forward if they feel a coworker is impaired
Even though employees’ inhibitions may be diminished and professional standards may be relaxed during a holiday celebration, your anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, and sexual harassment policies should remain in full force. An employer can be held liable for a hostile work environment claim even if the discrimination or harassment occurred offsite during nonworking hours. Remind employees of your policies before the holiday party and encourage all employees to report to a manager, supervisor, or human resources employee immediately if they observe or experience anything that may be discrimination or harassment.
Following these guidelines will ensure that you and your employees will be able to enjoy the winter season without your HR department getting lost in a blizzard of seasonal complaints. Consult with the experienced attorneys at myHRcounsel for the answers to your holiday-related questions.
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