You are a beleaguered HR professional charged with making the holidays lively without inviting lawsuits. On the day of your company’s holiday party, you walk into the lobby of your building and see the elegant Christmas pine that you helped decorate. As you behold it in its twinkling glory, a co-worker says, “That tree is inappropriate in the workplace.”
Wrong. It is beautiful; Christmas can and should be acknowledged—so says the Jewish guy who wears a chai pendant given to him by his grandmother. (Chai is a Hebrew letter that means “life.”) There’s no reason to remove symbols of Christmas from holiday decorations. But recognize other holidays, too. A Hanukkah menorah and a Kwanzaa harvest basket would be nice additions.
Your encounter in the lobby, however, is just the beginning of a day of seasonal challenges.
In the elevator, you hear employees complaining about the holiday party. “I don’t want to go, but I feel like I have to,” one says. You think you can feel the early signs of a migraine coming on. You would love to say, “Please, if you don’t want to go, by all means, don’t. Your present to me would be your absence.” It’s OK to think it, but please don’t say it (unless you are retiring at the end of the year).
In fact, unless the holiday party is scheduled during working hours, be careful not to require or even strongly encourage employees to attend—or else you may ring in the New Year with a wage and hour claim. Yes, Virginia, there is a chance an employee may claim the party is work.
Another person in the elevator is upset that the gathering is not called a Christmas party, while still another says that, as an atheist, she objects that there is any party at all. Oy vey, you think.
Usually, it’s best to call your shindig a holiday party or seasonal celebration to maximize inclusion, but it is more than OK to mention the various holidays celebrated, including Christmas. In fact, please do. Inclusion does not mean eliminating anything that is not universally shared. It is the opposite!
As the elevator door opens to your floor, you see a large menorah with lit candles. Your receptionist thought it would add meaning to the season.
First, address the fire hazard by blowing out the candles. Second, make it clear that employees cannot put up whatever they want, wherever they want. (Sincerest holiday greetings to the National Labor Relations Board: Management rights is not an oxymoron.)
Two people are waiting for you in your office. One is dismayed that a co-worker gave him a thong as a holiday gift. The other is unhappy that there are no decorations recognizing the Buddhist holiday of Bodhi Day.
To prevent the first headache, let workers know that gifts must be appropriate. Tell them that excludes anything sexual or otherwise inconsistent with your equal employment opportunity (EEO) policy. Consider also how you will deal with gifts of alcohol. What if you prohibit its possession on your premises?
Now, here comes my keen legal prowess: Send an e-mail to employees that reads, “If you receive alcohol as a gift, do not open or consume it at work, and please take it home the day you get it.”
As for decorations, invite people to make suggestions before you put them up. You can maximize spiritual inclusion if you involve employees in the process.
It’s no wonder that, by the time you arrive at the holiday party, you run right to the bar. Be careful. Control the amount of alcohol you choose to provide, as well as how much you imbibe yourself. Ensure that you serve plenty of nonalcoholic beverages and food, too, and provide vouchers for cab rides home.
One way to minimize legal risk and help those in need: Consider charging for drinks and donating all of the money to charity.
Following a chat with your CEO at the party, you notice two employees dancing suggestively. There is also a love train of employees, in which everyone puts their hands in the pockets of the person in front of them.
Because of situations like these, every year around this time there is a bonanza for plaintiffs’ lawyers: “Were you groped at your holiday party? Witness employees grinding on the dance floor? Call 1-800-IRETIRE.” To minimize the likelihood that workers will have cause to contact one of these lawyers, remind employees that your EEO policy applies to social events and respond quickly and firmly to inappropriate behavior.
|Enter the Lawyers
After your holiday party, the senior leadership team meets with corporate attorneys and decides there will be no more holiday parties. Just too many risks! I know it’s hard to imagine: lawyers focusing only on the risks.
But guess what? There are risks in taking no risks. Employees who do not feel connected to or cared for by their employer are less likely to be engaged, which brings with it risks such as lower productivity and increased turnover. So proceed with your celebrations, but carefully and thoughtfully. Start planning now to avoid mistakes. And then let the good times roll.
If music will be played, focus on what it will be. At the risk of showing my age, Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” would not be my first choice. There is no good answer to Rod’s question!
Snoop Dogg’s “Sensual Seduction” isn’t much better. The problem with this title? Both words.
But somewhere between Snoop Dogg and Barry Manilow is an appropriate middle ground.
And don’t worry about playing “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” But that’s about as religious as you’ll want to get.
You leave the party with a massive headache and read through the holiday cards on your desk. Many are blank because no one knows what to say. If you say “Happy Holidays,” are you declaring war on Christmas? If you say “Merry Christmas,” are you disrespecting your Muslim colleagues?
A generic “Season’s Greetings” works well. But if you know the faith of the recipient, it is more than OK to customize. I always wish my Christian friends “Merry Christmas.” And I like it when people wish me “Happy Hanukkah” if they know I am Jewish. (I am less happy if they do so because they think I look Jewish.)
If you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, I wish you a peaceful and meaningful holiday that corresponds with your faith. If you observe another holiday, I apologize for not referencing it by name, but I give you my good wishes just the same, as I do for those who recognize no holidays or who celebrate at another time of year. May peace be with all!
Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.
SHRM article: Workplace Holiday Parties: On the Rise or Decline?
SHRM article: The Secularization of the Holidays
SHRM article: Making All Employees Feel Included During the Holidays
SHRM article: Holiday Parties Highlight Racial Dissimilarities
SHRM web page: SHRM Online Legal Issues home page