It’s that time of year again for holiday parties. Because many companies did not host holiday parties in 2020 or 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are now returning to in-person events, it’s time to brush up on the best practices for avoiding holiday-related legal claims.
Holiday parties are a wonderful opportunity for team building and increasing morale. However, there are potential legal issues associated with company holiday parties. The following are some of the legal issues to think about when planning a holiday party:
1. Religious Discrimination: Be careful not to force employees to participate in religious practices as part of their job duties. For instance, do not require employees to say “Merry Christmas.” In addition, think about how to make your holiday office décor and events inclusive and welcoming for individuals of different backgrounds and religions.
2. Harassment Relating to Participation or Non-Participation in Holiday Parties: Many workers do not get into the holiday spirt or celebrate a certain holiday. Employers who force employees to participate in such activities or permit others to harass those who do not participate may open themselves up to a hostile work environment claim.
3. Other Forms of Harassment: Alcohol is often served at holiday parties, and a surprising number of people can exercise poor judgment and lack of control when alcohol is involved. With the loss of control, we often see improper comments and actions of a potentially harassing nature. It is best to remind employees that they must act responsibly and that you will enforce workplace rules, such as anti-harassment policies, regardless of whether the party is held during work hours or on company premises. Executives and supervisors who attend the party should monitor the event and enforce company rules consistently.
4. Pay Issues: Non-exempt employees will likely be entitled to pay for time spent at a holiday party that is held during work hours. Likewise, if attendance is mandatory regardless of where and when the party takes place, such time may also be considered hours worked. Generally, attendance should be voluntary, and employees should not be pressured to attend or disciplined for failing to attend.
5. Worker’s Compensation: Employees are generally covered under an employer’s worker’s compensation policy for injuries sustained while in the “course and scope” of their employment. If attendance at a holiday party is required, the employee can make a workers’ compensation claim for injuries sustained – as long as those injuries do not result from horseplay or intoxication. Avoiding a workers’ compensation claim, however, may not be the right ticket because employees may then have a claim for negligence, which will not be covered by your worker’s compensation carrier.
Although holiday parties present potential legal issues, employers who plan carefully can help prevent legal issues and enjoy the party.