Question: I’m planning a holiday party for my employees in December. I’d like to thank staff for doing such a good job this year.  What legal issues should I keep in mind as I am planning the party?
Answer: The majority of employers host year-end or holiday parties for their employees to express gratitude and provide an opportunity to celebrate.  According to recent surveys, between 80-90% of employers host holiday or year-end celebrations.  You can have a festive and safe holiday party that fosters teamwork by following a few simple suggestions.

  • Christmas Tree, Menorah, Kwanzaa Harvest Basket? To maximize employee inclusion in your holiday party, ask employees to provide you with ideas concerning holiday decorations.  This will allow inclusion of other traditions and holidays, and make employees feel like they are part of the party planning process.  However, make it clear that employees cannot put up whatever decorations they want, wherever they want. A sexy Santa is not appropriate in any workplace.
  • Do I have to go to the party? Make sure your invitations and communications with employees make it clear that they do not have to attend. If employees feel that they have to go to the party, they may claim that the party is work time and they should be paid for that time.
  • Should we have a gift exchange? If you do, let your employees know that your equal employment opportunity and harassment/discrimination policies apply to the exchange of gifts.  Sexual or vulgar gifts are not appropriate. It is helpful to set a dollar limit on gifts if your office has a gift exchange.  Many offices have a “secret Santa” anonymous exchange, or a “white elephant” gift exchange.  Others make donations to charity in lieu of a gift exchange.
  • What about alcohol? If employees are allowed to give gifts of alcohol, make sure they take their gifts home on the day of the party.  It is important to limit the amount of alcohol you provide at the party, as well as how much alcohol you and other owners/managers consume. One idea is to provide drink tickets to limit consumption.  Or, you could charge for drinks and donate all of the money to charity. Serve plenty of nonalcoholic beverages and food, and consider providing vouchers for cab rides home.  Pay attention to how much your employees are consuming, and stop serving if it appears the alcohol consumption is more than moderate.
  • Who picks the music? You should devise the playlist and plan for music that is not sexually suggestive, violent, or offensive.  “I’m Too Sexy For My Shirt,” “Wild Thing” and “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” should not be on the play list at your party.
  • What about employee behavior? Although you are hosting a party, it is an office. Employees and guests should relax and enjoy themselves.  If necessary, remind employees that your workplace policies apply to social events and respond quickly and firmly to inappropriate behavior. The “love train” should not be present at your holiday party.

While there are some legal risks involved in hosting a holiday party, the benefits outweigh the risks. Employees who do not feel connected to or appreciated by their employer are less likely to be engaged, which lowers productivity and morale. Holiday parties express gratitude and promote teamwork, so enjoy your celebrations, carefully and thoughtfully.