Three holiday cautions for employers

Holiday celebrations in the workplace require thought and care

Signs that the holidays are here are inescapable. From the music in the stores to the wreaths on the doors, the sounds and symbols are everywhere — in homes, churches and, yes, even workplaces.

A time of celebration, fun and friendship, there’s no reason you can’t infuse a little spirit into your workplace. You just need to be careful doing so. Holidays combine the perfect ingredients to create a cocktail of sticky legal situations, especially those related to liability, discrimination and harassment issues.

Here’s how those situations arise — and how to avoid them.

#1 Beware the holiday party.

Estimates this year indicate two out of three businesses will mark the holidays with a company party. It’s a great way to celebrate what your team has accomplished during the year and to thank every person for their hard work. The biggest challenge with holiday parties is alcohol. 

As we’ve all seen, inhibitions fall away the more someone imbibes. And inhibitions are a good — even important quality — in workplace relationships. An easy way to avoid the issue is to celebrate with a holiday lunch, but if you want a more traditional party, take steps to control the holiday spirits. Here are a few ways to do it.

  • Issue drink tickets. Many people will stop when their tickets are gone.
  • Hire a professional bartender to spot and stop serving people who’ve had enough.
  • Designate drivers. In a perfect world, you could provide transportation to and from the party, but in our real world, keep handy names and telephone numbers for local taxi services.
  • Designate dry heads. You’ll want a few sober people in the room to ensure appropriate behavior.
  • Serve a lot of food and close down the bar an hour before the party ends.
  • Invite spouses and significant others as dates tend to keep people on better behavior.

#2 Give gifts in good taste.

Harassment at company parties still counts as harassment in the workplace. A company party or in-office celebration is not the place for bawdy gifts, however “funny” they may seem. 

If gift-giving will occur in your workplace, set spending guidelines to avoid a competition for giving the best gift. And guide your employees to stick to gender-neutral gifts that are not the sort of presents they would give to romantic partners.

Some companies today pool funds from employees who want to participate in gift-giving and donate the sum to a charity the company supports. Just take care to ensure that any and all gift-giving is voluntary.

#3 Take an inclusive approach to decorations.

If you decorate your workplace for the holidays, be mindful of the traditions and observances (or lack thereof) among your workers, and don’t leave anyone out. Sticking with nonreligious, winter-themed decorations is a safe alternative.

If you opt to forgo decor in common areas and allow employees to decorate their offices year-round with photos and other personal items, allow them to decorate their own workspaces for the holidays, too. Of course, all general rules must still apply — including decorations that distract as well as discriminate or harass.

In conclusion, if you wonder why any of these cautions are important, rent an old holiday episode of The Office. That’s about all the inspiration you’ll need to rein in your workplace celebration.

Ellen Frantz, employment lawyer at Johns, Flaherty & CollinsBy Ellen Frantz, employment law attorney. For an employment lawyer in La Crosse, call 608-784-5678.


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