Question:  With the holidays approaching, I’m thinking of having office holiday parties.  Are there any guidelines I should follow?


Answer:  Workplace holiday celebrations can boost morale and help with team building by increasing interactions among employees who do not often work together. At the same time, employers must ensure that these celebrations do not expose employees to harassment or discrimination.
On Halloween, it is not unusual to see people driving to work in clothing that is not normal office attire.  Some employees push the envelope and come to work in costumes that are too revealing or that make fun of a gender or an ethnic group.  Allowing employees to wear revealing or suggestive costumes could lead to claims of sexual harassment, which is prohibited by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Permitting an employee to dress in a way that stereotypes a race, could be a form of race discrimination, which also violates the FEHA and Title VII.  Employers should have a dress code and a policy prohibiting harassment and discrimination and should remind employees that those policies apply every day, even during office celebrations.  If an employee comes to work wearing an inappropriate costume, the employer should tell him or her to modify the costume or go home and change.
Many employees like to decorate their work spaces for the holidays. Employers are free to adopt policies concerning holiday decorations, as long as the business is not acting in a discriminatory fashion. For example, allowing one employee to display a Nativity scene in December, but denying others the right to put up a Menorah could make an employer vulnerable to a claim of religious discrimination, which also violates the FEHA and Title VII.
Most employers celebrate the holiday season with parties and fun activities for their employees. A recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) revealed that roughly two-thirds of the employers surveyed hold end-of-year or holiday parties for their employees. Smaller businesses of 1 to 499 employees are more likely than larger organizations to have an end-of-year or holiday party open to all employees. The majority of employers hold their holiday parties off-site, and nearly one-half (48%) of businesses do not participate in gift exchanges. It is important that employers let their employees know that participation in any holiday celebration is voluntary.
Not surprisingly, many businesses and employees participate in end-of-year charitable donations/drives. The SHRM study found that seventy-eight percent of organizations surveyed participated in charitable donations/drives during the end-of-year/holiday season. In addition to providing a benefit to the community, the holiday donations/drives build morale and camaraderie among employees who can join together for common causes. Locally, many non-profits conduct end of year drives, including the Food Bank for Monterey County, Boys & Girls Clubs of Monterey County, and the Salvation Army. Employers can get creative and provide voluntary opportunities for employees to donate to non-profits that benefit a wide array of community organizations, like United Way Monterey County or the Community Foundation for Monterey County.
An employer that has rules in place and applies them consistently can have enjoyable workplace celebrations and provide opportunities for charitable giving that bring employees together without creating a harassing or discriminatory environment.