To borrow a line from a well-known Andy Williams song, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” The months of November through January are known for office holiday parties. All of this fun brings an increased risk of liability for employers, and for that reason it is important to be proactive and create a plan to avoid risks so that your company is not left dealing with any headaches in the New Year.

Decking the halls: Employment law considerations for planning your holiday party

A number of religious groups celebrate significant holidays during the month of December. Federal and state law prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion. This means that an employer cannot treat employees differently on the basis of religion or favor one religion over another. Also, not all employees associate the holidays with any religious observance. To avoid creating the appearance of favoring one religion over another or of having your party perceived as having a religious theme, consider doing the following:

  • Choose festive, non-religious decorations. Bring out your snowflakes, snowmen and boughs of holly, but leave out decorations with religious connotations like nativity scenes and menorahs. Unless you display religious symbols from a number of different religions at your holiday party, you will only create the appearance of religious preference.
  • Be mindful of your menu. Consider food options that are sensitive to various religions and nationalities, and survey your employees about any dietary restrictions ahead of time. Some religious observances restrict diets or require fasting during particular periods. Avoid scheduling your holiday party during these periods
  • Spotify responsibly. If you choose to play music, select non-religious songs.
  • Make the holiday fun optional. No one has ever enjoyed a compulsory party. Allow your employees to decide on their own whether they would like to attend.

Rein in any reindeer games: Avoiding holiday party harassment

Workplace holiday parties are a common ground for harassment—particularly sexual and religious. Alcohol consumption can make people less thoughtful with their words, and when parties are held away from the office, employees feel more at ease to say and do as they please.

Under federal and state law, employers have a legal obligation to prevent harassment in the workplace. This duty extends to work-sponsored events, like holiday parties (even parties that take place off-site). To avoid holiday party harassment, employers should

  • Make sure handbook policies make clear that work conduct rules apply at work functions after working hours
  • Remind employees that company policies, including the harassment policy apply at work functions, and that being under the influence is not a defense for bad behavior
  • Consider designating specific managers to avoid alcohol and monitor the event and intervene if anything gets out of hand
  • Promptly investigate any claims of harassment after the party

Holiday hangover: Navigating employee DUI arrests

As raucous holiday celebrations burn late into the night, alcohol oftentimes serves as the fuel. This could lead some party revelers to get behind the wheel while under the influence. The winter holiday season is one of the most dangerous times of the year on our roadways, and the peak time for driving under the influence (DUI) arrests.

But beware before terminating an employee on the basis of a DUI arrest because many states and municipalities prohibit taking an adverse employment action on the basis of an arrest record. An arrest does not necessarily equal guilt. For any number of reasons, the arrest may not result in a conviction. Further, the EEOC closely scrutinizes criminal record screening policies, including policies calling for automatic termination upon arrest. For these reasons, terminating an employee based on a DUI arrest is usually a high risk decision.

To avoid the risk of your employees getting a DUI on the way home from your holiday party, consider limiting intake by only keeping the bar open for a portion of the evening, requiring drink tickets, and/or limiting choices to beer and wine. Additionally, by including spouses and significant others in the evening, you increase the likelihood that your employees will have a designated driver for the ride home. Depending on the size and scope of the party, you might also consider shuttle services to get everyone home in one piece.

Enjoy the holiday season, have fun and be safe!