Don’t Be Spooked by Holiday Parties

By Kathy Gurchiek October 25, 2010
Lady Gaga is one of the top costume choices for Halloween in 2010, but portraying the celebrity at work—with or without a slab of meat as accessory—can have scary implications for employers.

In fact, workplace holiday celebrations in general are rife with potential problems, notedFisher & Phillips attorney George Reeves during the Oct. 20, 2010 webcast, “Don’t Be Spooked by the Holiday Season: Tips for Improving Employee Morale Without a Legal Hangover.”

Employers are recognizing that holiday parties or some sort of end-of-year celebrations are a good way to foster flagging employee morale, provide networking opportunities and involve the employee’s spouse or significant other with the organization.

However, while the intent might be good, it’s a potential minefield requiring forethought, Reeves said.

“Anytime you have a holiday party, there are horror stories,” webcast co-presenter and attorney Karen Gieselman said during the webcast. “Regrettable pictures and, of course, regrettable dancing,” she added wryly, referencing the “Seinfeld” episode in which character Elaine Benes’ dancingat a company party leads to co-worker ridicule.

Avoiding Halloween Horrors

Halloween is the second biggest holiday in the United States. More than one-third of employers provide some sort of celebration that can range from an informal potluck to giving treats to employees’ children to allowing workers to dress in costume, Reeves said.

However, employers that allow costumes will want to remind workers they are in a place of business and that workers should make their costume choices accordingly. There might be a safety issue in organizations where employees work around machinery, for example, Reeves said.

Employees who come to work portraying a political figure during an election year, as a high-profile figure hit by scandal, such as Tiger Woods, or in provocative, native or religious garb can be offensive and might even lead to litigation, according to Reeves.

“You need to remind employees to use common sense when discussing costumes,” he said.

He recalled a white employee who came to work in black face and dressed as Aunt Jemima—the rotund mammy gracing pancake products of the same name that many African-Americans consider a racist stereotype.

Reeves pointed to the character Michael Scott from the TV show “The Office” and his penchant for wearing topical costumes—appearing as Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction or as Monica Lewinsky in a stained dress—as examples of how it can backfire and contribute to a hostile work environment.

“You’ve got to communicate the guidelines in advance,” including the discipline for inappropriate costumes, such as sending an employee home to change. “Remind them they’re on the clock. They’re subject to work rules,” Reeves said.

Additionally, managers should keep their reactions in check to a costumed employee. A joking comment to a female employee dressed as a man that “I see you’ve figured out what it takes to succeed in this company” can come back to haunt the organization, Reeves said.

“[Costumes] are a real threat for litigation,” he said. Even if an organization wins the litigation, it often doesn’t feel like a win because of the costs, time and distractions involved, he added.

Party Protocols

Holiday parties can be a source of headaches for HR and the organization, sparking inappropriate jokes and behavior.

Among party planning tips for employers that Reeves and Gieselman shared:

  • Solicit and welcome employee input.
  • Embrace and celebrate diversity. Celebrate the end of the year instead of linking the party to a religious holiday.
  • Make party attendance voluntary.
  • Choose the venue wisely, avoiding a location that might be seen as sexist, for example.
  • Include spouses and significant others in the invitation.
  • Review liability insurance issues; most don’t cover alcohol-related incidents.
  • Don’t hang mistletoe at a company function.
  • Keep the music and play list work-appropriate. Songs such as “Baby Got Back” might not be the best choice for a company party.
  • Remind managers that they are on duty.
  • Remind employees of the company’s policies on discrimination and harassment.
  • If gifts are to be exchanged, make the exchange voluntary and general in nature; give employees guidelines on what is, and is not, appropriate.
  • If the organization donates to charity during the holidays, choose it carefully—some charitable organizations have religious affiliations that not all employees embrace. Offer alternatives.
  • Refrain from company-sponsored pre-parties and post-parties.
  • Refrain from serving alcohol, if possible. If it is served, make sure food and nonalcoholic beverages are available.
  • Use servers and bartenders—not supervisors—to administer drinks, and make sure that the servers and bartenders are professionally attired.
  • Do not provide an open bar; distribute tickets to control drink availability.
  • Hire a taxi service or provide other alternative transportation for persons who have too much to drink.
  • Schedule an end time for the party.

Employers see holiday parties as a way to recognize employees’ hard work at the end of the year, Reeves and Gieselman noted, but they suggest that organizations can boost morale without venturing into potentially hazardous waters.

They cited one organization that installed a disco ball in its call center for year-round use. Whenever a call center goal was met, the disco ball flashed on briefly to recognize the achievement.

It is an example of the “simple ways to tell employees year-round that we appreciate their work,” Reeves said, while instilling some fun into the work day. “At the end of the year, that’s all the holiday party is.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.


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