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Holiday etiquette in the workplace

December 16, 2009

In this litigious day  & age, employers have to be more careful than ever about their choices in holiday celebrations. The biggest liabilities for employers are sexual harassment, health and safety issues, followed by discrimination. I hate to be Scrooge and bah humbug your holiday plans, but I have some tips to keep you out of hot water.

If you choose to have a holiday party, make sure employees understand your expectations for attendance at the office the following day. Remind everyone what the company’s policy is regarding sexual harassment. Be sure your staff understand that the company’s rules regarding harassment are still in effect even outside the office.

When you plan your party, consider carefully the venue and whether alcohol will be available.  Regardless of your position in the company – limit the amount of alcohol you consume. Bad behavior will be remembered long after the party is over. Also, discuss the company’s policy regarding drugs and alcohol with your staff. Do not give the impression that the company condones overindulgence. If an employee gets injured while under the influence, even on the way home from the party, the employer could be held liable.

Make sure you take proper precautions to ensure everyone’s health and safety at any holiday activity. A holiday party is considered to be “in the course of employment” which means potential works comp liability. Consider how staff members will be getting to and from the event. It may be worth the cost of paying cab fare for an employee who is too inebriated to drive home rather then risk a potential claim.

Consider holding the event in January when people are less stressed with holiday activities. A holiday party in January has fewer connotations of being for a specific holiday. Its can be called a seasonal celebration, avoiding potential discrimination issues. You want to include everyone regardless of which holiday they celebrate.

Regardless of someone’s religious traditions, make sure they feel included in workplace decorations and activities. Invite all staff to contribute to the decorations. Each individual can have decorations representative of their tradition.

Workplace gift swaps are sticky situations. Feeling can be hurt if one person puts a lot of thought an effort into their gift giving and others give vending machine purchases. Also, you can’t demand employees spend their own money. Its actually best to stay away from them altogether. Daniel Post Senning of Emily Post’s etiquette recommends holding gift swap away form the office. If you go ahead with a gift swap, be sure to provide guidelines as many employees give “humorous” gifts that are not funny for the recipient. Senning also suggests that gifts given to superiors be from the team rather than individuals.

Greeting cards are also a potential problem. Be careful of wording and images. You want to keep images neutral from a religious standpoint and don’t mention specific holidays in your messages.

Be careful how you handle the holiday season. Be sure your company’s messages regarding the holidays are both inclusive and safety conscious.  The following are true examples of the PC minefield the holiday season has become:

  • In Wichita, Kansas, a local newspaper ran an apology after referring to a “Christmas tree”, rather than a “community tree” at the city’s Winterfest celebration.
  • In Denver, a Christian church float was barred from the city’s parade while Chinese lion dancers and German folk dancers were welcomed. In parts of Florida, fir trees have been banned this year from government-owned property.
  • A mayor in Massachusetts issued a formal apology to anyone offended by a press release that mistakenly described the town of Somerville’s holiday party as a “Christmas party”.
  • Schools in Florida and New Jersey have banned all carols and elsewhere in Washington state a school principal banned a production of A Christmas Carol mainly because Tiny Tim prays: “God bless us, every one.”
  • In one New Jersey school district, Christmas carols, including instrumental version, are banned. Parents are suing the school district because the Christmas carol ban is hostile towards religion.

Avoid lawsuits, backlash and hurt feelings. Keep your expectations clear. Make sure everyone feels welcome and included in your holiday activities.

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