Bah Humbug! The Top 5 Things to Keep in Mind When Planning an Office Holiday Party

November 24, 2014 | By

Last year HRLegalist offered Eight Tips for a Problem-Free Office Holiday Celebration. This year we’ve complemented that most excellent advice with a few more suggestions to help your company foster a festive holiday spirit while avoiding headaches – of the legal and literal variety!

Office holiday parties can be an opportunity to celebrate and bond with employees, but the combination of gift giving, religious celebration, and alcohol can leave employers open to a host of problems if the annual season’s festivities aren’t planned with an eye for detail. HR departments and the office party planner should consider the following when getting into the holiday spirit:

1. Being Inclusive of Employees Regardless of Religion – Employers should attempt to create a holiday party that all employees feel comfortable attending. In a diverse workplace, putting less emphasis on the religious significance of the holidays and more on good cheer and camaraderie can be a good choice. For example, putting up a Christmas tree is not a violation of federal law, but it might alienate non-Christian co-workers.  Non-religious decorations, such as snowflakes and candy canes, offer a festive secular alternative.

 2. Providing Alcohol – Making the decision to serve alcohol at an office party is one that many employers grapple with during the holidays. If serving alcohol is a must, consider holding the party off company property, perhaps at a bar or restaurant. Limit the amount of alcohol served with a drink ticket system or a designated person to look out for visibly intoxicated employees. If the party is on company property, consider hiring a caterer or professional bartender, who is trained at serving drinks and recognizing visibly intoxicated individuals. In many states, Pennsylvania and New Jersey included, an employer acting as a social host can be liable for injuries to a third party if the employer serves alcohol to a visibly intoxicated individual. Make sure that all liability insurance for the company is up to date and find out if the caterer, restaurant, or bartender carries its own liability insurance. By hiring trained professionals and holding the party off the premises, an employer can minimize liability while still offering employees a fun holiday experience. If drinking is not integral to the party, consider having a holiday party at lunch time on a weekend instead of at night. A lunchtime celebration creates a different atmosphere that might be the right choice for a dry holiday party.

 3. Attendance – Inform employees that attendance at the party is voluntary and not mandatory. Employees’ religious beliefs may prohibit them from participating in a holiday party and employers can face discrimination charges for pressuring employees to act contrary to their religious beliefs. Also consider allowing employees to bring guests to the party. Employees are less likely to get drunk and unruly when their spouses and significant others are standing next to them.

 4. Sexual Harassment Policy –While holiday parties are times of office camaraderie it’s important to maintain a safe work environment for all employees. Employees should be reminded that harassment, jokes, and sexual advances are not tolerated, and that alcohol does not provide an excuse to engage in these prohibited behaviors.Employers need to inform and emphasize to employees that sexual harassment policies are in full force and effect during a holiday party. It might be helpful to offer examples of prohibited behavior or recirculate the office sexual harassment policy in anticipation of the party.

 5. Secret Santa and Gift Giving in the Workplace – Just like holiday parties, secret Santas and other forms of office gift giving surface during the holiday season. Gift giving can be enjoyable but it’s important to set parameters for appropriateness, inclusivity, and price. And like any other workplace holiday activities, holiday gift giving should be voluntary. No employee should be forced to participate in secret Santa.

Gifts should meet common sense definitions of appropriate. Employees should not give gifts that are considered offensive, such as intimate apparel, religious objects, personal hygiene products (e.g. deodorant), overly expensive items, or culturally insensitive gifts. Coworkers open gifts in front of each other, and inappropriate gifts can cause embarrassment and offense when opened in public. Additionally, price limits are a good way of making gift giving inclusive; it’s easier for an employee to buy one person a $20 secret Santa gift rather than worry about spending money on every colleague in the office.

Getting into the spirit of the holidays should be a positive experience that the entire workplace can enjoy. By proactively planning ahead, employers can create a holiday party that is safe, inclusive, and fun. Happy Holidays!


Categorized In: Workplace Policies