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Holiday party do’s and don’ts: Take down the mistletoe

XpertHR advises on how to avoid holiday party pitfalls

The holiday season is often a time for festive parties where employers can thank employees for a job well done. However, these celebrations may carry a great deal of risk — from claims of religious discrimination and sexual harassment to drunk driving, says XpertHR, an online compliance resource.

Employers should be especially careful if serving alcohol because it can result in myriad issues such as car accidents, injuries, discrimination, harassment and inappropriate and offensive conduct. Management should make sure that all employees are completely sober before driving home.

If an intoxicated employee leaves the holiday party and injures someone, or causes property damage, the employer may be liable for negligence. Because of this, a luncheon may be safer as employees may be likely to drink less during daytime hours.

“If an employer is not careful, things can turn sour in a hurry,” says Beth Zoller, Legal Editor, XpertHR. “If alcohol is being served, attendees may be less likely to behave appropriately, therefore, employers should ensure that employees are aware of the employer’s code of conduct.”

Employers should also avoid hanging mistletoe as a decoration, as this not only could lead to religious discrimination claims, but also to potential claims for sexual harassment.

In order to minimize employer liability, the employer should make sure that employees are aware of the employer’s zero tolerance policy for discrimination and harassment and code of conduct.

“Even though the event may be held away from the employer’s premises and during what is generally considered to be nonworking hours, the employer should reiterate that the same policies are in effect and that employees should treat each other with respect and common courtesy,” says Zoller.

XpertHR offers 9 ways an employer can minimize the risk of liability when it comes to holiday parties:

1. Enforce Discrimination, Harassment and Employee Conduct Policies – Workplace policies regarding discrimination, harassment, employee dating, employee conduct and its dress code remain in effect even during the holiday party, and employees as well as supervisors will be liable for violations.

2. Have Supervisors Set a Good Example – Supervisors should lead the way and set a good example for the rest of the employees by enforcing and complying with the employer’s policies regarding discrimination and harassment as well as the employer’s code of conduct.

3. Exercise Caution if Serving Alcohol – If an employer decides to serve or allow alcohol, it should designate a management employee to monitor alcohol intake and make sure employees do not become too intoxicated or incoherent.

4. Keep the Focus Off Religion – In planning for any holiday party, it is important for an employer to avoid overly religious symbols such as Christmas trees, nativity scenes and mistletoe when it comes to party decorations and avoid overly religious music.

5. Do Not Make Attendance Mandatory – Some employees may not want to attend the holiday party and if attendance is mandatory it may be considered working time and hourly employees may be entitled to overtime.

6. Carefully Plan the Menu and Entertainment – Make sure to take the individual needs and concerns of diverse employees into account.

7. Be Inclusive of All Employees – Invite employees working in all offices or job sites and even employees who telecommute or work remotely.

8. Consider Whether to Invite Spouses or Significant Others – Remember to be inclusive of all employees and respect their personal relationships.

9. Respond to Complaints in a Timely Fashion – Once on notice that an employee is complaining of discrimination, harassment or inappropriate conduct, the employer and HR have a legal duty to follow up and document the complaint and begin an investigation if warranted.

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