Legal Issues to Avoid During Holiday Office Parties

It’s that time of the year again- holiday season.  It’s a time of festivities, good cheer, and rituals, our favorite being the time-honored tradition of the company office party.  Now I don’t mean to be a scrooge, but both employees and employers alike have much to consider when planning this year’s winter wonderland potluck.  As we gather and celebrate another year of hard work and dedication, let’s remember to keep all of our co-workers safe and happy.

There are many legal issues floating around out there in connection with the yearly office bash.  Here are some pointers to make sure that everyone emerges from this season’s holiday office party squeaky-clean and free of lawsuits:

Keep company behavioral policies in effect: Feel free to shoot the breeze and catch up with your long-lost buddies over at accounting- just remember to keep your conversation and conduct appropriate.  For those kind souls who will be planning games and activities, make sure they don’t violate workplace standards, and try to avoid planning games that involve organized chaos.

Even though it’s a party, it could sometimes still be considered a “workplace environment”, even if it’s off-site.  Harassment and safety considerations should remain intact, even if you have left your worries outside the door.  Some commonly reported holiday no-no’s have included: offensive white elephant gifts, inappropriate reindeer-themed costumes, naughty language, and abuse of mistletoe privileges.

Watch the alcohol consumption: If your team must serve alcoholic beverages, you might want to avoid open bars and unlimited drinks.  A ticket or voucher system works nicely to pace the thirsty, and an earlier last call is always good.  Also, make sure everyone jingles all the way home safely through designated drivers.  If there are any doubts, I would avoid the booze altogether and serve some good ol’ cider instead.

Be wary of discrimination factors: Holiday parties tend to focus on particular religious celebrations, which could be fertile grounds for an employment discrimination lawsuit.  Religion is one of the protected categories under Federal discrimination laws, and favoring one type of celebration or excluding another could be disastrous for your company.  Both employers and employees could be held liable for discriminatory conduct (and we don’t mean being choosy about which kind of pie to consume).

Be mindful of how you name the party or event- in my opinion it’s best to just use a generic title rather than trying to include the many festivals which, for some reason, chose to converge at this time of the year.  December contains the most special days of any month, including National Cotton Candy Day on the 7th and National “Chocolate Covered Anything” Day on the 16th.

Oh, and watch the decorations and themes, too.  One Virginia courthouse Christmas display was knocked as being offensive, even if it attempted to include representations for several different faiths.

Exercise equality when presenting gifts or awards: The end of the year is a great time to honor those who have pulled more than their share of the load.  Just be sure that gifts and awards are presented in a way that does not suggest favoritism.  This is especially true if the gift is coming directly from a supervisor or managing partner.  I’m all for boosting team morale, but favoritism or special treatment in the workplace could result in disciplinary actions or other unfavorable consequences.

Well, folks, that about wraps it up.  Here’s to another epic year.  Have fun and may your office parties be filled with all kinds of cheer and propriety!

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