Tips for Avoiding Workplace Lawsuits Over the Holidays
December 10, 2018
Holiday parties are a great opportunity to build morale and strengthen relationships. However, sometimes in the midst of all the cheer, things get out of hand. An employee might drink too much and act in ways they will later regret. Someone might drive home from the party intoxicated. Who would be held responsible if an employee is injured during the event or on the drive home? If you are the employer, the blame may fall on you.
To avoid workplace lawsuits, it’s crucial that you and your employees know your rights and prepare for the festivities with company policies in mind. Here are our top tips for preventing troublesome incidents during the holidays so everyone can enjoy the season litigation-free.
Tips for Employers
As an employer, you already know you have a lot of responsibility, and it is not easy to please everyone all of the time. On the one hand, you have to respect workplace diversity, yet on the other, you have to make sure employees express themselves without offending others. When the holidays roll around, the workplace can become tense if you don’t consider all employees and their beliefs.
It is essential to build an environment that promotes respect, professionalism and personal growth for all employees regardless of who they are or what they believe. With that said, you and your employees can still have fun and let loose without losing control. Follow these tips when planning a party and keep the goal of preventing a lawsuit in mind:
Use Non-Religious Decorations
Millions of Americans do not celebrate Christmas. For this reason, you do not want to assume that everyone in the workplace feels comfortable with popular Christmas decorations like a nativity scene. However, employees also have the right to express their beliefs within reason. How do you know what you should allow when it comes to religious expression? The first step is to know you and your employees’ rights.
First, know that it is your employee’s right to celebrate their beliefs. As an employer, you are obliged to accommodate their beliefs.
According to the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers with at least 15 employees must reasonably accommodate staff whose religious beliefs clash with the requirements of their job. A religious accommodation usually relates to an employees’ work environment, dress code or work schedule. An employer is required to adjust an employee’s schedule, for example, if the employee sincerely holds religious beliefs and if it will not cause undue hardship.
An employer may refuse to accommodate only if a religious accommodation causes undue hardship such as threatening the safety of other employees or interfering with work productivity. For example, an employee can decorate their personal workspace with religious symbols. However, proselytizing their beliefs and making others feel uneasy should not be permitted.
To avoid making others feel discriminated against during the holidays, make sure everyone knows that holiday party attendance is voluntary. Also, make sure to use non-religious decorations when decorating the workplace. With the right decorations, you can create an atmosphere that lifts employees’ spirits without making them feel uncomfortable. Here are some decoration ideas:
- Bring the outdoors in: Instead of celebrating a belief, celebrate the season and the beauty found in the natural world. Winter is the perfect time to decorate with pine or poinsettias, for example. Also feel free to decorate with snowflake designs or cheerful strands of lights.
- Use neutral colors: Choose colors that are not reminiscent of a specific holiday like Christmas or Hanukkah, and instead decorate with festive neutrals like silvers and golds.
- Decorate with food: Set bowls of candy or seasonal fruits around the workplace to make employees feel appreciated, and to help spread cheer regardless of beliefs.
- Be mindful of placement: Pay attention to where you place your decorations. For example, do not put all the decorations in one corner of the office next to a certain group of employees. Spread decorations throughout to make everyone feel included.
When it comes time to send out the office holiday party memo, make sure to leave religion out of that too. It is better to wish everyone happy holidays than a merry Christmas.
Also, consider throwing a New Year’s party instead of a Christmas party for employees and avoid the topic of religion altogether.
Remind Employees of Policies Pre-Party
One of the best ways to avoid a lawsuit is prevention. In 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) found that anywhere from 25 to 85 percent of women report experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. A 2003 study found that 75 percent of employees who spoke up about workplace harassment faced some sort of retaliation. Do not let your company be a statistic and help build an environment that supports employee safety and well-being for all.
Before the party, remind employees that the Department of Labor (DOL) defines harassment as any unwelcome conduct, whether that be verbal or physical and whether it’s based on race, religion, sex, age, gender, sexual orientation and other factors. If any employee feels they’ve experienced this, let them know they have the right to voice their concern and that it’s safe to let you know immediately. Make it a priority to remind employees that the company will tolerate harassment of any kind.
As an employer, you are required by law to do your part in preventing harassment or discrimination. It is also your job to deal with any harassment claims. Otherwise, you will be held liable, even if you were not aware of the harassment. Educate employees and make sure anti-harassment policies are clear to all before company parties.
Do Not Serve Alcohol
The best way to decrease the chance of a holiday party lawsuit is to not serve alcohol. According to the Department of Justice, alcohol plays a part in 40 percent of all violent crimes, and nearly 40 percent of all traffic fatalities.
Also, with too much to drink, employees are likely to let their guard down and act inappropriate or engage in illegal activity. They may not drive drunk, but they might post embarrassing or incriminating photos to a social media site while under the influence. This type of behavior could harm the employee’s career, your company’s name or even someone’s life.
A holiday party can still be a lot of fun without the risk that comes with alcohol. You can offer tasty non-alcoholic beverages or mocktails instead and plenty of delicious snacks for employees to enjoy. Also, you may want to consider throwing a holiday party during daytime hours. Employees might be less apt to drink alcohol if the celebration takes place in the early to late afternoon.
If a holiday celebration does not feel complete without alcoholic beverages, you can still plan to include alcohol. You will just have to plan carefully and consider many factors like safe transportation and alcohol limits. Follow these tips to plan a safe holiday party that involves alcohol:
- Before the event, send a memo stressing the importance of moderation and responsible behavior and that anything otherwise will not be tolerated.
- Make food and games, not alcohol, the focus of the party.
- Offer plenty of non-alcoholic alternatives.
- Hire someone to serve the alcohol, so employees do not have open access.
- Make sure there are people in the room who aren’t drinking to help keep things under control.
- Encourage employees to invite responsible friends or family members to keep them in check or to act as designated drivers.
- Offer a place for employees to spend the night or provide safe transportation.
- Limit the number of drinks employees can have with drink tickets or limit the amount of time you serve alcohol.
- Make sure to serve lots of starchy foods to help absorb alcohol and reduce the effects.
- Avoid liquor and, instead, serve beer or wine.
It’s important to consider all the things that could go wrong due to lowered inhibition. Make a plan to keep the party as safe and professional as possible and stick to it.
Tips for Employees
As an employee, you might be looking forward to having fun with coworkers at the company holiday party. It’s ok to want to relax and enjoy yourself, and it’s great if you feel comfortable with your company. However, be aware that if you get out of hand, you will not only have embarrassment to deal with but possibly a damaged career or legal repercussions. Keep the following tips in mind to protect yourself and others while still having a great time.
Do Not Drink Too Much
The best advice we can give to avoid a holiday-related lawsuit is to not drink too much. No matter what the circumstances are, overindulging in alcohol is never a good idea and can quickly lead to poor behavior and unwanted consequences.
Prepare yourself mentally ahead of time and commit to having no more than two drinks. Two alcoholic drinks or less is enough to help ease any tension but is likely not too much to lead to dangerous driving or foolish behavior.
Keep in mind that you are not obligated to drink either. Focus on the other aspects of the party and save drinking for non-work related occasions. If you do drink, make sure to accompany your beverages with lots of water and snacks.
Do Not Flirt
While under the influence of alcohol in a more light-hearted environment you may get the urge to flirt. Provocative behavior has no place at a company party or anywhere work-related no matter what the mood is.
Resist flirtatious actions, and you will be glad you did later. Think of how awkward Monday morning will be as a result. Or, consider how your behavior could lead to a sexual harassment charge. Have fun and mingle with others but keep it professional.
Bring Someone With You
Bring your significant other or a responsible friend to help keep your behavior in line and to be a figure of support in case you need it. Make sure you do not invite someone who tends to act irresponsibly as their behavior will reflect on you.
Also, inform your guest of your company policies before the party, so you are both on the same page. Always make sure it is ok to bring someone with you first.
Use the Time to Network
You may not want to think about your career potential while you are playing bingo, sipping wine and eating taco dip, but if you can, make the time to make an impression. You can use the company party as an opportunity to network and make new acquaintances.
Also, you may be less likely to indulge in alcohol if you are in the middle of a conversation with the CEO and focusing on getting ahead rather than getting drunk.
Whatever you choose to do, resist sitting alone and acting bored and be sure to put your phone away. Be engaged and show your company pride.
Focus on the positive at the company party and avoid gossip or talking about others behind their backs at all costs. You never know who might overhear you, and you do not want to bring down the mood. If the conversation runs dry, ask questions to keep it going. Participate in party activities and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to unfamiliar faces.
Have a Plan
Make sure you are prepared for the party. Know what you are going to wear, how much you plan to drink, who you are going with, how long you plan to stay and how you will safely make it home. The better prepared you are, the less chance you will have of doing something you will later regret.
Worried what you will talk about with others? Instead of planning to get a refill each time you need a confidence boost, think of questions you can ask new coworkers ahead of time to spark conversation. Also, plan what you will say to the head of the company if you bump into each other.
You will also want to know how you will respond to people if you choose not to drink so that you do not feel pressured to do so. Lastly, do some homework about your company ahead of time. Know what is new and going on in your company and community so you can share your ideas and support.
The thought of liability and lawsuits does not have to dampen the holiday spirit. Whether you are an employer or an employee, just remember to maintain a professional tone and be respectful of others regardless of race, gender, religious beliefs or other factors. Know your rights, encourage positivity and enjoy sharing the holiday festivities.
For over 30 years, KBG Injury Law has been proud to serve you and the communities of central Pennsylvania. As your trusted personal injury law firm, we take pride in bringing you the results you deserve.