Holidays in the Workplace: Do You Fear What I Fear?

Kollman & Saucier
Kollman & Saucier

Probably not if you’re like any other business.  After all, ‘tis the season to boost company morale and show appreciation for staff with parties and time off and bonuses too!  Below I offer a few tips for mitigating clean-up of the post-holiday legal mess these issues have the potential to create.

  1. Away with that Manger.

Decorations are key to a festive atmosphere and there is no reason you should stop decking your office halls out of fear of litigation.  In fact, it has been held that a private sector employee’s aversion to religious holiday décor is not enough to state a hostile work environment claim under Title VII.  See Spohn v. West (S.D.N.Y. 2000).  It is also well settled that a government’s display of certain holiday decorations such as wreaths and Christmas trees does not violate the law.  Nonetheless, you should demonstrate sensitivity to a diverse workforce and steer clear of overt religious displays so that all employees can feel comfortable in the workplace.

This goes for the office fete as well.  By making it an inclusive holiday celebration, there’s less chance you’ll need to accommodate employees who feel mandatory participation could violate their personal beliefs, as required under Title VII.

  1. You Ought to Say No, No, No.

Making employees feel comfortable in the workplace is only half the equation.  Don’t forget that discrimination laws apply to company sponsored events out of the workplace as well.  Before inviting staff to that off-site after-hours holiday celebration, review your company’s anti-harassment policy and remind employees about it too.  Emphasize that your company has zero tolerance for inappropriate touching, jokes and other prohibited conduct, and that such behavior will be treated the same as if it occurred in the office during normal business hours.  Which brings me to my next point…

  1. There’s Bound to Be Talk Tomorrow.

So you return to the office and are immediately bombarded with complaints about a post-party mistle-no incident.  Take reports of inappropriate behavior seriously and investigate consistent with complaint reporting procedures. Parties and alcohol are not an excuse for bad behavior, nor should they be accepted as one.  Gift yourself the best defense to a harassment lawsuit by taking prompt remedial action when violations occur.

  1. Sign Your “X” on the Line.

And lest you think that all I care about is holiday harassment, know that wage and hour issues are makin’ the list this year as well.  First, unless you plan on paying employees to attend that holiday hoedown, make attendance optional.  The last thing you need is a claim for overtime wages to start the new year.  Second, there is no legal requirement to pay non-exempt employees for time off at the holidays, nor are you required to provide additional compensation beyond the normal hourly rate (absent overtime work, of course).  While doing either, or both, is likely to boost employee relations, you should ensure that practices are consistent with stated company policy.  Finally, conduct an audit of how you’re paying employee bonuses.  Whether payments are related to work performed or an unexpected gift impacts their treatment under wage and hour laws.


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