In the holiday spirit? Find yourself singing alone in the car to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on Lite FM (of course, I don’t, I’m just asking you)? Thought the most interesting thing on your Twitter feed in the past two weeks was news that Adam Sandler updated his Chanukah song?
Or…. That excitement and extra pep in your step you feel just may be that your office holiday party is right around the corner some time over these next couple of weeks. However, from a risk management perspective (and isn’t that why you’re reading this blog anyway?), employers should also heed the orange caution hue when it comes to office holiday parties. Otherwise, employers will quickly live the old adage that no good deed goes unpunished.
That is not to say that Ebenezer Scrooge should be your adopted holiday persona and that holiday parties should go the way of cassettes and fax machines. Nevertheless, I offer our Top 10 tips to avoid potential trouble with your office holiday parties, including several that deal specifically with the social media/employment law interaction.
#10 – Alcohol. So obvious an issue, yet so often still ignored. Without question, alcohol consumption is considered to go hand in hand with a party, and restricting or eliminating alcohol altogether may dampen the morale and sprit of those attending. Yet acts of alcohol consumption and reasonable restrictions are not mutually exclusive. Consider the following: (i) restricting the number of drinks permitted (through drink tickets), the type of drinks permitted (no shots and plenty of “cool” non-alcoholic options), or the time that drinking is permitted (last call prior to departure time); (ii) ensuring sufficient food is available and passed around to help slow absorption, (iii) offering vouchers/paid cab rides or incentives to employees to act as designated drivers.
#9 – Selfies. Today’s biology lesson: We were born with two hands so that, while one holds the drink, the other can hold the smart phone. Very few go a minute these days without snapping a picture or video of themselves or others. Alcohol lowers the inhibitions there as well (see #10 above). Make sure your employees are sensitive to the privacy wishes of those around them, as well as the fact that delete never truly means delete.
#8 – Compensation/Bonuses. Recent Presidential Executive Orders and NLRB decisions suggest that you cannot prohibit employees from discussing wage-related issues in person or via social media. Consider advising your employees of end-of-the-year salary adjustments and bonuses after putting them all together in a party room, particular if the economic climate dictates a downward trajectory on dollars for your partygoers.
#7 – Dress Code. Good news: You no longer are likely to have the costumes that your office Halloween party paraded in. Not-so-good-news: Employees still change attire when leaving the office to go to a holiday party. Make sure employees are aware of your reasonable dress code expectations, and that inappropriate and overly suggestive attire is not acceptable for any office-related function.
#6 – No-Shows. There is a myriad of reasons why your employees may choose to avoid the office holiday party. Perhaps an employee has suffered a personal loss at this time of year, or is generally uncomfortable with mixing “business with pleasure.” Perhaps an employee has another commitment that evening, or simply wants to spend the time with family. In any case, the point of the holiday party should be to celebrate and reward employees who want the celebration and reward, and not retaliate or ostracize those uncomfortable with it.
#5 – Non-Secular. In a similar vein, it is often difficult to see the harm in adorning the party room with the Menorahs and Christmas trees, or having the CEO come in white beard and red coat to hand out the Secret Santa gifts. As with any work time issue, however, employers should understand their religious accommodation obligations under the law and be sensitive to those who may be particularly sensitive with overly-secularized party themes.
#4 – Spouses/Parties/Others. We assume the goal of your office holiday party is to boost the morale of your employees and reward them with a company-sponsored party for another productive year. Not to create a wild-wild-west, anything goes forum. To properly strike the desired balance, perhaps consider the additional proactive step of inviting spouses, partners, and significant others to your party to keep the atmosphere disciplined and professional.
#3 – Location. They say in real estate that “it’s all about location.” Many believe the same is true with holiday parties. Again, if the goal is to provide a fun morale boost (see #4 above) and still keep the decorum professional, consider holding the holiday party in the office. Your employees are less likely to forget that office policies and protocols still apply regardless of where the office personnel congregates. Which brings us to #2…
#2 – Policies. Office policies and protocols still apply regardless of where the office personnel congregates. So important, it is worth repeating verbatim. And also so important that it is worth having you or your HR professional consider the following: (i) making sure you have comprehensive, lawful workplace policies (harassment, discrimination, retaliation, complaint process, social media) in place, and (ii) circulating a memo to employees prior to your holiday party that reminds them of your workplace policies, that those policies apply equally to on- and off-premises parties, and that the company will not tolerate inappropriate behavior and violations of its policies. It is not difficult for someone to file a harassment and discrimination complaint generally; as employers, you want to make sure that you do not make it even easier through your hosted events.
And the #1 Tip To Avoid Potential Trouble At Your Office Holiday Party – Mindset. There is always the unexpected occurrence, and even the forgotten rule or law. But employers are best equipped to anticipate and address any issues concerning the office holiday party if they develop the appropriate mindset from the start. They say you cannot start talking to your children for the first time when they become teenagers, and it is equally futile to start developing the appropriate mindset on workplace protocols and employee relations for the first time at holiday time. Spend the entire year creating the right atmosphere in your workplace, understanding the do’s and don’ts when it comes to employee obligations and rights, and speaking with counsel when you are not sure. In fact, once your holiday party is over, consider including all of that in your New Year’s resolution.
Employer Take Away: What should you as an employer take away from this development?
Read #10 through #1 above to yourself, and share it as a gift to your HR professionals and managers. Do what you can to adopt a mindset that includes any or all of the above, while still being able to maintain the office holiday party as a means for appreciating and thanking your employees for a wonderful year.