Question: This year, my company would like to celebrate the holidays by hosting a holiday party for our employees and their families – just like we did prior to 2020. Is that an option this year?

Answer: The widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines has certainly given us reason to feel festive and ready to interact with coworkers in person once more, and many local employers have decided to celebrate their employees, and the season, with in-person gatherings. There are some precautions you can take to ensure a safe and festive holiday party and minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19 – not to mention the usual concerns of minimizing the risk of harassment and discrimination claims at holiday parties.

While last year’s parties were almost exclusively virtual, declining COVID-19 cases, rising vaccination rates, and the arrival of booster shots are allowing for more in-person gatherings this year. In evaluating whether an in-person holiday party is appropriate this year, employers should include a risk assessment of COVID-19 in the workplace and identify the controls needed to reduce the risk. The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) has issued guidance for organizing events and gatherings to assist employers in their decision. Employers should consider whether to hold an indoor or outdoor event, whether to require masks indoors, and whether to require proof of vaccination status.

Whatever safety precautions you may plan to require of your employees, precautions you can take with their family members, with whom you have no legal relationship, are far less straightforward. Many employers mandate their employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine, but employees’ family members may not be vaccinated. Employers will need to decide whether to require proof of vaccination status to attend an event, and should establish clear protocols to distribute to employees prior to the party. In general, outdoor events are safer for larger gatherings, but this may be a year for limiting the holiday party to your employees.

Another consideration is that with the cancellation of last holiday season’s parties, some employees may be feeling more jolly than usual at an in-person gathering – especially if alcohol is served. A common issue at holiday parties that may lead to liability for harassment is the consumption of too much alcohol, which results in decreased inhibitions and increased risk of offensive or unlawful conduct. To avoid such consequences, employers may decide to avoid serving alcohol, or limit the number of drinks by providing one or two drink tickets to employees and guests. Employers may also designate an exempt manager to discreetly observe the behavior of employees and guests to make sure everyone is having a fun and safe party experience.

Employers should also be sensitive to potential religious harassment or discrimination at holiday parties. Employees may be from different cultural or religious backgrounds that do not celebrate the same holidays, or do not celebrate the holidays the same way. To make all feel welcome, avoid decorations, greetings, or toasts that are religious, and offer different menu and drink options for guests who do not eat or drink certain foods for cultural or religious reasons.

No matter what you decide to do, remember that many employer sponsored holiday parties take place each year without incident. If you decide to host a party, make sure your employee handbook, harassment policies, and COVID-19 protocols are up-to-date and that all employees adhere to your policies.  Then enjoy the celebration with your staff.