Holiday Parties: Five Key Issues Employers Should Proactively Watch and Plan For

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The holiday season is upon us – a time when many companies (and/or managers) may be organizing holiday parties, decorating offices, throwing off-site parties or holding secret gift exchanges between coworkers. Many employers, however, don’t realize the risks involved with celebrating the holidays and its festivities.

The following are five key issues employers should proactively watch and plan for during this holiday season.

Holiday parties (and their aftermath): Holiday parties are festive and should be, but each holiday party holds a veritable minefield of potential embarrassments, regrettable behavior and, in worst case scenarios, discrimination and harassment lawsuits. For example:

  • Be aware of the potential for accidents and liability. Offer taxi vouchers as a safeguard.
  • Send a memo to employees before the holidays reminding them that the company’s dress and behavior code – and harassment policies – still apply to an off-site, after-hours company-sponsored event.
  • If you can’t ban alcohol completely from the festivities, create a drink ticket system so as to limit your employees’ alcohol consumption. Always have plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and food available.
  • Designate several supervisors to refrain from drinking and monitor the party for inappropriate behavior. This should include arranging cab rides for employees too intoxicated to drive.

Holidays are not just for parties, but are religious events: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza – all are reasons to celebrate. What about Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t participate? Some may be offended. Consider these options:

  • Make sure that gift giving and holiday parties are voluntary in nature so as not to offend. Also, be conscious of religious symbols in the workplace.
  • Do not squash private expressions of "Merry Christmas," "Happy Hanukkah," etc., but do not adopt these as company messages.
  • Exclude religious symbolism from decorations and entertainment. The laws prohibiting discrimination do not require employers to avoid trees or wreaths, but the decorations on them should be secular.
  • Call the events "holiday parties," and make attendance at the holiday social events optional.

Time off issues: As employees take extra time off to shop and prepare for the holidays, long lunches, leaving early, arriving late could become a problem. Take this opportunity to note the importance of timekeeping and recordkeeping. Don’t be a "Grinch," but do ensure everyone is treated equally and consistently to ensure against potential future issues, e.g., discrimination.

The holidays mean a new year is upon us:
Make sure you know about all of the new laws impacting your business that become effective in 2012. Some examples include:

  • The National Labor Relations Board issued a final rule requiring all employers in the private sector to post a "Notification of Employee Rights under the National Labor Relations Act" by 1/31/12. Now is the time to update all posters and review what each state requires.
  • Many states, including Arizona, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon and Washington have already announced increases in minimum wages. More states and cities will likely follow.
  • California has a whole host of new laws, including restrictions on use of credit reports for employment purposes, added requirements and penalties associated with improperly classifying employees as independent contractors, and requirements regarding providing pregnancy insurance benefits.

Make sure to tax holiday gifts properly: Employers should also understand that there may be tax consequences to holiday gifts. Gifts such as holiday turkeys, hams, gift baskets and other tangible goods of a de minimis value - $25 or less, and definitely not more than about $50 – can be given by employers to employees without implicating taxes. But beware of giving cash or "cash equivalents" such as gift cards, which are always treated as taxable wages by the IRS.

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Helene J. Wasserman has spent her entire career practicing exclusively in the area of labor and employment law. She appears before state and federal courts and administrative agencies and handles litigation matters, including trial practice, arbitration and mediation. She routinely speaks on these subjects, and you can find out more about her specific areas of expertise by visiting her website.