The fall and winter holiday season can be a special time for many. People often look forward to the food, music, decorations, and gathering with family and friends. However, when it comes to holidays in the workplace, there are some pitfalls that employers should be careful to avoid.
Here are ten considerations for employers to navigate the upcoming holiday season:
1. Be Inclusive
People enjoy the holidays differently, and employers must consider their workers’ varied backgrounds and beliefs. Do not make religion the focus of your holiday party. The goal of most year-end celebrations is to show appreciation for employees, so let that be the party’s focus. All employees should feel included in the festivities—but this doesn’t mean you have to string up every religious and secular decoration you can find. Although courts have ruled decorations such as Santa Claus or a tree to be secular, consider a neutral theme, such as a winter wonderland or end-of-the-year bash. Similarly, ensure any music played in the workplace or at a work event is appropriate.
Additionally, some employees may fear reprisal for not attending a company holiday party. Make sure any communication about the party is clear about attendance. It’s best to make the party optional and remind supervisors not to take adverse actions against employees who decide to skip it. If the event is mandatory, employees must be paid for the time spent at the party. Remote non-exempt employees’ travel expenses and time spent traveling to a mandatory event should also be paid. Including a variety of activities for those who abstain from drinking or won’t enjoy holiday games will help make all employees feel included.
2. Holidays Parties and Alcohol
Serving alcohol at a holiday party can present some risks. While a drink or two can help party attendees relax and feel more at ease, excessive drinking is a significant source of problems at events. Employees may have a lapse in judgment and make an inappropriate or offensive comment to a coworker. Or, as an intoxicated person is less coordinated, they could have a fall or accident and hurt themselves or someone else. In many states, employers can be held liable for employee drinking-related incidents even if the party is off-site.
If you are planning a holiday party where employees will be served alcohol, take the following simple steps to limit the potential for trouble:
- Don’t host an open bar. Instead, provide 1-2 drink tickets for each attendee.
- Don’t allow employees to mix their own drinks.
- Hire a trained bartender who won’t overserve.
- Only serve beer and wine, not hard liquor.
- Serve food and offer choices of non-alcoholic drinks.
Supervisors should also set the tone by limiting their own drinking or designating someone to keep an eye on alcohol consumption among employees—and be prepared to arrange transportation home for employees if needed.
3. Don’t Forget About Marijuana
Since recreational marijuana use is legal in Washington and Oregon, some employees may want to know if marijuana will be allowed—or even provided—at the holiday office party.
Keep in mind that, like alcohol, employers may be held liable for behavior or actions resulting from marijuana use at a company-sponsored event. Therefore, it’s not a good idea.
Notify supervisors that they are prohibited from providing marijuana, even if it’s done outside on a “break” from the party. In addition, your handbook policy should address drug and alcohol use in the workplace and at employer-sponsored events and ensure those policies are followed at the holiday party.
4. Reinforce Professional Standards
Holiday celebrations, particularly ones where alcohol is involved, can also provide a setting for joke-telling, lewd behavior, sexual advances, and other conduct that may be considered sexual harassment or harassment based on another protected status.
Employers should reinforce their professional standards by reminding all employees that work rules still apply at holiday parties and related events. Managers should keep their eyes and ears open during the event to ensure a safe and professional environment for all attendees.
And don’t allow the hanging of mistletoe—just don’t.
5. Holiday Safety
Unfortunately, every year during the holiday season, fires claim lives and destroy property. Many of these fires were preventable. It is crucial to consider the flammability and the potential fire risk of any decorations used in the workplace. Avoid live Christmas trees that tend to dry out, and turn off holiday lights when unattended. Never allow candles or other open flames in the workplace, and keep combustibles away from heat sources. Also, don’t forget to unplug space heaters when left unattended!
In addition to the risk of fires, slips, trips, and falls can be other potential hazard concerns. Clean up spills on the floor during parties, and inspect ladders for physical integrity when hanging decorations. Avoid wooden ladders that can have damage from rot, fungi, mold, and pest damage. Check metal or fiberglass ladders for damage, including dents, and ensure that spreaders (the arms that extend A-frame ladders) work as intended. Check weight limits, as many light-duty ladders have a limit of 200 pounds. The user may be under this weight limit but don’t forget to add in the weight of their clothing, shoes, and the decorations they’re hanging. Always keep three points of contact with the ladder (two feet and one hand), and remember not to stand on the top cap (the platform at the top of the ladder).
6. Holiday Dress and Virtual Considerations
Some employees may feel extra festive during the holiday season and want to wear celebratory apparel or accessories. Or perhaps at the holiday party, employees decide to wear a little less clothing than usual. In any case, employers should ensure that any holiday apparel complies with dress code policies and professional standards at work and events.
Similarly, employers should consider dress code policies for remote employees and expectations for virtual backgrounds. Employees may stretch the boundaries when working from home and sometimes need a reminder that the remote workplace is still a workplace.
7. Keep Company Awards, “White Elephant” Gifts, and Holiday Cards Appropriate
There are many variations of white elephant gift exchange rules. Some play it in a way where the gifts are meant to be sought-after, like a kitchen dish or a picture frame. Yet others bring gag or prank gifts, like a Chia pet or a singing bass fish for the wall. Either way of playing can be fun, but in both instances, clear ground rules should be made.
Consider setting a maximum gift value that employees feel comfortable spending, no more than $10-20. Make it clear that employees can opt out of the exchange if they wish. Make sure gift-givers know that, while gifts can be silly, they should still be appropriate.
Employers that provide end-of-year awards should consider the same rules and be aware that not everyone may find humor in funny trophies, and some may misunderstand creative messages.
Employers with a tradition of sending holiday cards to employees, customers, and clients as a thank you for their contributions must remember that not everyone celebrates Christmas. The design and content of cards or emails should be appropriate for a diverse audience.
8. Religious Accommodations
When planning holiday celebrations, contests, and décor, be mindful that people in your organization may have difficulty participating due to their religious practices. Legal problems have arisen in workplaces where employees were required to answer the phones with a greeting of “Merry Christmas” or change their email signature to contain a particular holiday greeting despite a religious objection.
If an employee states they are concerned about participating in a holiday event or activity, you should consider if they are entitled to a religious accommodation.
The religious accommodation process is initiated when an employee has a “sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance” that conflicts with a workplace rule. Once the employee puts the employer on notice of this fact, the employer and employee must enter into an interactive process (similar to a disability accommodation process) to find a reasonable accommodation.
Possible religious accommodations may include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions, job reassignments, and modifications to workplace policies or practices, such as a dress code. Proactive employers have inclusive holiday practices to get ahead of religious accommodation requests, like providing employees floating holidays to use throughout the year to observe their preferred holidays or allowing multiple holiday schedules to choose from.
9. Getting and Giving Gifts—Be Aware of Taxable Income and Conflicts of Interest
The holiday season is a popular time for businesses to show their appreciation for employees and customers by giving gifts. However, it’s a good idea to determine whether the expense is tax-deductible and taxable to the recipient.
Generally, anything of value given to an employee is included in the employee’s taxable income (and, therefore, subject to income and payroll taxes). However, there may be an exception for non-cash gifts that constitute “de minimis fringe benefits.” Examples include holiday turkeys, gift baskets, or employer-branded swag. On the other hand, cash gifts—as well as cash equivalents, such as gift cards—must be included in an employee’s income and subject to payroll tax withholding, regardless of how small and infrequent.
Employers should also be clear when a gift may create a conflict of interest. For example, a gift of more than a nominal value from a customer or supplier may be considered a conflict of interest. Employer policy should define what “nominal” means. Many employers define this as $25 or less. Now is an excellent time to check your conflict of interest or gift policies to ensure they are up to date and consistent with company practice.
10. Holiday Shutdowns and Holiday Pay
Some employers shut down their operations between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Employers have many factors to consider before deciding to shut down operations, including:
- Pay: Employers are not obligated to pay non-exempt (typically hourly) workers if no work is performed. If an exempt (salaried) employee works any part of the week, the employer must pay their entire weekly salary. However, if an exempt employee performs no work at all during the workweek, the employer can dock pay for that week. Employees may be required to use available paid vacation time off during a shutdown period, subject to state or local law.
- Notification to Employees: It is advisable to notify employees as soon as possible of a shutdown. Similarly, if the employer expects employees to use vacation or other eligible paid time off during the shutdown period, that expectation should also be promptly communicated.
- Unemployment: Employees who are laid off without wages for all or part of a shutdown period are eligible to file for unemployment. Employers should not promise that an employee will receive unemployment benefits, as the state’s unemployment office decides to award unemployment benefits, and there may be considerations unknown to the employer.
- Holiday Pay: Employers are generally not required to pay employees holiday pay. A holiday is usually considered an employer-provided benefit, subject to the employer’s policies. Therefore, if a holiday occurs during a shutdown period, the employer’s policies or practices dictate whether the holiday is paid.
To help manage your workplace obligations this holiday season, plan ahead and have clear policies and procedures in place.
Eligible Archbright members are encouraged to contact the HR Hotline with questions or seek specific guidance. Eligible members may also access Archbright’s sample policies, including holiday, anti-harassment, conflicts of interest, or drug-free workplace, along with various Keynotes on the mozzo Resource Library.