We all know that the holiday season is beginning. Soon, businesses will be celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day and other winter holidays. As employers plan their holiday parties, there are a number of things to keep in mind to make certain holiday parties remain happy and do not morph into a disaster. Here are some helpful tips to consider and keep your holiday gathering from turning into a problem for you and your employees:
1.) Make it a “holiday” party, not a Christmas, Hanukah, or other religiously themed party. Pardon the political correctness, but claims of religious discrimination could arise if the party is seen as a religious function and not an employer function. What about your obligation to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs during the holiday season? The law says that an employer must “reasonably accommodate” an employee’s religious beliefs as long as such accommodation does not cause the employer to sustain severe or undue hardship. You should make every possible effort to allow an employee with a sincerely held religious belief to take time off for proper observance of a religious holiday. Examples of reasonable accommodations may include:
- Allowing employees to switch shifts
- Use vacation time or unpaid time off
- Offer a “floating holiday”
What if an employee objects to your traditional workplace Christmas decorations on the basis that they offend his or her religious beliefs. Do you have to take them down? Not as long as you are a private employer. Use common sense and be reasonable. If an employee doesn’t wish any Christmas decorations on the desk or in the cubicle where they work, don’t force the issue.
2.) Beware of Compensation issues. If a non-exempt employee is pressed into service to make arrangements for the party (sending them out to buy party supplies during their lunch hour), by law you should be paying them. Also, be wary that certain types of bonuses to a non-exempt employee may have to be included in their regular rate of pay for purposes of calculating overtime compensation. To be excluded from an employee’s regular rate of pay, a bonus must not be determined from the total hours worked, production or efficiency. Nor may the bonus be so substantial that the employee considers it a component of his or her annual income. The party should be voluntary. Making it mandatory could lead to claims of overtime compensation by non-exempt employees if they have to work over 40 hours that week. There may also workers compensation issues if an employee is injured at a mandatory holiday event.
3.) The Company’s policies still apply at a party. Distribute the company’s harassment Policy well in advance of the event, making sure employees read it and submit notification of having done so. Manager training is important to ensure management understands and will enforce the policy and provide a visible and positive presence as well as set a professional example.
4.) Limit alcohol. Most of the potential liability springs from serving alcohol at company parties. The legal theory of “respondeat superior” which holds an employer responsible for the acts of his or her employees undertaken in the course of their employment; and social host liability which holds a provider of alcoholic beverages who serve alcohol to visibly intoxicated individuals liable for injuries those individuals may cause while intoxicated. If an employee (or worse, a manager or supervisor) can’t hold his or her liquor and begins to flirt… or touch… or proposition, you may very well be looking down the barrel of a sexual harassment claim.
Determine in advance if you will serve alcohol at the party. If you don’t serve alcohol, you reduce your liability risk down to almost nothing. However, not serving alcohol at a company sponsored event isn’t very realistic unless you are prepared to deal with a lot of grumbling about how “boring” the party was.
Limit alcohol consumption or use designated “spotters” to make sure people who have drunk too much don’t leave the party on their own, don’t become “too friendly” with someone else at the party and don’t engage in activities which can be dangerous to themselves or others.
Arrange transportation for intoxicated employees, either by having designated drivers or using a transportation service.
Hold the party off site and during non-business hours at a venue not owned by the employer and where there are professional bartenders to dispense the drinks.
Set the tone of moderation before the party through interoffice memos and meetings reminding employees to be responsible, discourage excessive drinking, and indicating what measures you will take to ensure a safe event, as well as a reminder of the consequences of out of bounds behavior.
5.) Avoid the “After-Party” at someone’s home or at a local bar. Enough said!
6.) Be inclusive. The inclusion of spouses, dates, significant others and/or partners often discourages improper and inappropriate behavior by those in attendance.
7.) Follow your Complaint Procedure. If there is a complaint about any conduct at the party, an investigation should be conducted as soon as possible. Do not put it off as holiday party behavior or locker room antics. If you have a non-tolerance policy against wrongful behavior, use it or lose it!
8.) Dress Codes. Send out a memo or inform your employees beforehand about proper dress codes for the party. Provocative clothing should be avoided at all costs to minimize claims of sexual harassment.
With over 30 years’ experience in advising employers and employees on workplace issues, let Boznos Law work with you to ensure you are ready to meet the challenges posed by the changes to the overtime laws. Call Bill Boznos today at (630) 375-1958 or contact us at through our website.