holiday party

Avoiding Legal Issues at Holiday Parties – Tips for 2019

As holiday season approaches, many employers take the opportunity to show appreciation for their employees by throwing a company-sponsored holiday party. While such gestures can certainly go a long way for employee morale, they are not without their risks. Any time you encourage employees to interact in a social setting outside of the worksite, you run the risk of something negative making its way back to the worksite. This adds the potential for larger issues of workplace harassment. There are ways in which employers can address such concerns.

First and foremost, ensure that your company has an updated and effective harassment policy that makes clear that such behavior will not be tolerated, whether it is at the worksite or elsewhere. Holiday party season is a great time to reiterate relevant policies regarding harassment and behavior. The best way to do that is through harassment training for all employees and supervisors. Training on these topics is timely not only because of the added risk, but also because it is the end of the year and it is a good practice to conduct such training annually.

Second, the holiday party should be an inclusive event that celebrates the holiday season rather than a specific holiday. This is not for “political correctness,” but rather to ensure that employees feel comfortable and included. The reality is that there are multiple holidays celebrated by multiple religious denominations and all should be invited to celebrate.

Third, employers should do their best to control the environment where these offsite interactions occur by creating an appropriate atmosphere at the holiday party. Not to be a “party pooper,” but an “open bar” or other encouragement to consume large amounts of alcohol may send the wrong message for a work event. If an employer insists on having alcohol at the party, it may be a good idea to limit it to beer or wine to avoid excessive intoxication and unprofessional behavior.

Likewise, beware of the “after party.” Sometimes employees relish the idea of getting together outside of work and they may want to continue the party on their own. When that happens, it is no longer a company-sponsored event, but there is still a risk that conduct from the after party makes its way back to the worksite. This is not to say that the employer can prevent the after party, but if it becomes aware of it, pay attention to the worksite interactions to ensure that there is no issue later.

Finally, supervisors need to lead by example at the holiday party. In many cases, the employees will look to the behavior of the supervisor. If supervisors treat the holiday party as a relaxed, but professional event, then the employees will as well. After all, no employee wants to stand out in a negative way to their supervisor. Conversely, if the supervisor lets loose, it may be an invitation for the employees to do the same.

About the Author: Jonathan D. Ash is a partner in the Labor and Employment Department of Fox Rothschild LLP where he helps clients in a variety of industries identify and solve legal issues in the workplace. He can be reached at jash@foxrothschild.com.

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