By Dionysia Johnson-Massie
Littler Mendelson P.C.
I admit it: I LOVE this time of the year! There is nothing like enjoying time with family and friends, engaging in meaningful community service activities, seeing the bright lights, and chatting with perfect strangers who seem to be in the best spirits.
Another fun staple of the holiday season is the office party. If employment lawyers are completely candid, this is truly a fun time of the year for our profession. We hold our ears a little closer to the telephone when receiving calls beginning with, “Are you sitting down? I need some advice. You will not believe what happened at our holiday party….” Even after all of these years of practice, there are times when certain scenarios leave me thinking, “say whaaaaat?”
The good news: there is a way to minimize holiday party mishaps and to enjoy the festivities …lawfully. How can companies and employees work together to achieve this outcome?
Think about your particular work force and ensure your planning committee considers all aspects of it during the planning process.
Be considerate of others’ faith traditions or religious beliefs, including those who are non-believers of any particular faith. Consider whether any of your employees would be offended by the venue selected, the music that is playing, the symbols that might be present or the planned activities. If a planned activity includes karaoke where the song selections are from a particular faith tradition and every employee is expected to participate at some point, for example, consider broadening the potential song selections that employees can select, doing another activity altogether or ensuring employees know they are not “required” to participate in any particular activity.
Also, communicate that attendance at the holiday party and participation in pre-planned activities are voluntary and ensure there are no “negative” consequences for employees electing not to attend the holiday gathering or to participate in certain activities. Some employees’ religious beliefs may preclude them from attending certain types of celebratory gatherings or participating in certain activities.
If some of your workforce might over-consume alcohol if presented the opportunity, for example, consider options that minimize risks to the company and, equally important, harm to employees or others. Some options include planning the holiday party during the workday to minimize the likelihood of alcohol consumption; not providing an “open bar” at the event; limiting the types of alcohol served to wine and beer, the number of alcoholic drinks per participant and the time during the event when alcoholic drinks are available for individuals to purchase to the first hour or two of the event; and ensuring there are non-alcoholic drink options available throughout the event.
Provide transportation options to your workforce. Make cabs or other transportation services available to take them to their homes. Under no circumstances should an impaired employee be permitted to drive.
Avoid engaging in inappropriate behaviors and, if something occurs, expect the Company to act on it.
Assume the holiday party is a work-related event, so behave and dress accordingly. If there are comments and other behaviors prohibited by your company’s policies, especially discriminatory or harassing behaviors, be certain to avoid them at the holiday party. Importantly, comments such as “I was drunk” or “I was in the holiday spirit” are insufficient excuses and do not justify misconduct. Employees behaving inappropriately should expect to be excused from the festivities and to receive disciplinary action, including termination, depending on the nature of their policy violations.