With the widespread easing of COVID-19 (coronavirus) restrictions, our attorneys have been fielding a number of questions about resuming company holiday parties. Here are some recommendations to enjoy a fun celebration with coworkers without getting the company into trouble:
Stay healthy: Tell employees to please stay home if they don’t feel well, so they don’t spread any illness to coworkers. Whether it’s COVID-19 or just a cold, no one wants to get sick over the holidays. Also consider whether there are any steps you can take at the facility to reduce attendees’ risk of coming down with something. For example, can the ventilation be improved? (See the CDC’s webpage on ventilation in buildings.) Can you prop open interior doors so people don’t have to touch common surfaces to pass through them? Can you provide single servings of food so people aren’t touching the same serving utensils?
Limit alcohol consumption: The use of alcohol significantly increases the risk of liability to the company. One reason is that your organization can be held liable if a person becomes intoxicated at your party and gets hurt or injures someone else, whether onsite or during the drive home. Another reason is that alcohol reduces inhibitions, which can result in some people making inappropriate comments and engaging in physical contact that violates the company’s policy against harassment. If you choose to offer alcohol, use a licensed bartender and hold the event off-site. Issue drink tickets to limit the number of alcoholic drinks per person and provide unlimited sodas or other nonalcoholic drinks. Instruct your managers and supervisors to be on the lookout for anyone who appears intoxicated, and be ready to call them a cab or rideshare if needed.
No harassment: Remind workers that your anti-harassment policy applies to all company-sponsored events, including holiday parties, and to any behavior that could affect the work environment. Inform managers and supervisors that they are responsible for immediately putting a stop to any inappropriate behavior and notifying HR for potential follow-up on the next work day.
Offer inclusive activities: Try to come up with activities that are accessible to a wide range of abilities and are unlikely to result in injuries. Ideas might include setting up your own indoor miniature golf course, playing cornhole, holding a scavenger hunt, decorating gingerbread houses, playing trivia games, etc.
Welcome everyone: Every employee, regardless of their religious background, should feel welcome at your event. One simple step to do so is to use religiously neutral theming, rather than tying the event to Christmas, Hanukkah, or other religious holidays. Calling it a “holiday party” or “end-of-year celebration” and using neutral decorations can help ensure all employees feel like they belong at your event. However, if you decide to use invitations or decorations that incorporate a religious theme, be sure you use other messaging to clearly convey that every employee truly is welcome.
Pay for employees’ time if attendance is mandatory or during work hours: If you set an expectation for nonexempt (overtime-eligible) employees to attend a holiday party, you must pay for their time. Supervisors’ statements are important in evaluating whether such an expectation was established, so if you don’t plan to pay wages for attending the party, tell your supervisors not to pressure anyone to attend. If attendance is optional but you allow employees to attend during their scheduled shift, we recommend also paying for their time so they don’t lose pay by attending.
For more guidance, contact your Vigilant Law Group employment attorney and see our Legal Guide, Company Social Events and Liability. Best wishes for safe and happy holiday celebrations!