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Holiday Celebrations: Keep Your Organization from Liabilities

As the holiday season comes to a close, employers should be mindful of the workplace issues that occur more frequently this time of year.

Ironically, holiday festivities can bring the greatest headaches of the year, but if your organization follows these guiding principles to avoid common pitfalls, your company can minimize liability and focus on the joys of the season.

1.) Review the terminology used while planning the holiday get-together.
  • A best practice approach is to avoid terms that have a religious connotation. Work events that have even the most subtle religious overtone can create many issues.
    • For example, if an employee objects to the religious nature of an event and cannot attend, the employer must carefully proceed so that the employee’s exclusion is not construed as discrimination.
    • Government organizations are particularly susceptible to liability when promoting a particular religious belief.

Your organization can reduce its risk of liability by giving the office party a general label, such as “holiday celebration” or “end of the year gathering.” Consider neutral games such as an ugly sweater contest and universal decorations such as snowflakes.

2.) When hosting an event, consider the pay implications. Many factors go into determining whether an employee is “on-the-clock.”

The following factors carry considerable weight in determining pay status:

  • Mandatory attendance
  • Non-exempt vs. exempt classifications
  • Regularly scheduled business hours vs. an afterhours party
  • Employee assistance in set-up, serving or clean-up

Generally speaking, a non-exempt employee must be compensated for his time at an office party if the event occurs during his work schedule, attendance is mandatory or the employee is working in any capacity to facilitate the event. Similarly, an exempt employee may not be “docked” for skipping the party.

3.) Studies show that harassment complaints increase at social gatherings. The concern is further heightened when alcohol is served.
  • It is of the upmost importance to enforce company policy at company-sponsored events. If an employee complains of sexual harassment or if rumors of sexual harassment circulate, managers should proceed as if the event occurred in the office during business hours.
  • As a safeguard, consider managing alcohol consumption at the party, such as drink tickets, cash-only bar or prohibiting hard liquor.

The holiday season is an opportunity to boost company morale and celebrate the year’s accomplishments but to make sure that you are keeping the company’s best interest in mind. If you are coordinating such an event, make sure that there are plans in place should any issues arise.


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