With the holiday season at hand, employers should be mindful that office holiday parties can create HR headaches. This year, more than ever, it seems that many employers are eager to host company-sponsored, in-person holiday parties, which many employees will excitedly attend. However, a poorly planned holiday party could infringe on several employment laws if not careful.
To help keep the season merry and bright, we will take a quick look at a few statutes employers should be aware of below.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
An office holiday party can implicate multiple theories of liability under non-discrimination/non-harassment laws. Foremost of which is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), which prohibits discrimination in employment on the basis of religion. For example, if an office holiday party theme relates to a particular religious holiday, such as Christmas, or excludes other seasonal religious celebrations, it could create a potential issue. In that case, an employee could object to attending on religious grounds. In one similar situation, an employer faced a Title VII discrimination lawsuit after it fired an employee who refused to attend the employer’s holiday party for religious reasons.
Additionally, Title VII prohibits sexual harassment. Under Title VII, an employer can be liable for sexual harassment in the workplace when the harassment is severe or pervasive. Those protections against sexual harassment extend beyond office walls, including to company social events. That means an employer may be liable for sexual harassment even if harassment takes place at a party.
Even one isolated incident of sexual harassment at an office holiday party may be sufficiently severe to result in liability. For example, if alcohol is served, and an employee’s judgment is impaired, unwanted sexual advances and other problematic conduct could occur. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has sued employers for sexual harassment related to office holiday parties, including one case in which a manager allegedly assaulted an employee in a hotel room following the company’s holiday party.
Fair Labor Standards Act
The Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) requires that employers pay non-exempt employees minimum wage for all hours worked, including “time and a half” when an employee works over 40 hours per week. Although an employer might not think of a holiday party as “work time,” the risk of wage and hour issues may still exist.
Specifically, non-exempt employees must be paid for all of the time they are required to be at work. So, an employer must pay an employee for the time the employee spends at a holiday party if attendance is mandatory. Conversely, non-exempt employees do not need to be paid for their time if:
- Attendance at a holiday party is voluntary.
- The party is held outside of normal working hours.
- No work is performed at the party.
As a result, employers should carefully craft and deliver their attendance expectations around a holiday party.
Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”) requires employers to ensure safe workplace conditions for employees. Specifically, OSHA’s “general duty clause” requires employers to furnish “employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to . . . employees[.]” Under this law, employers may be liable if an employee suffers an injury at work.
As such, if an employee’s attendance at a holiday party is mandatory, an employer could be liable for injuries suffered at the party. For example, an employer could face liability if an employee gets a little too jolly (i.e., drinks too much) at a party and then gets hurt. However, an employer is less likely to be liable for any employee injuries suffered if attendance is voluntary and there is no business purpose connected to the event.
Best Practices for Office Holiday Parties
To minimize issues under employment laws, employers may take several steps to help limit potential liability:
- Do not use religious themes or decorations;
- Make it clear that attendance is entirely optional;
- Do not question an employee’s decision to skip the event;
- If the party is offsite, clarify details such as dress code, guests, and transportation options;
- Before the event, remind employees of the company’s code of conduct, anti-harassment policy, and any other respectful workplace guidelines;
- Remind managers that they should be setting a positive example and keeping an eye on their employees to ensure they are following applicable workplace policies;
- Consider limiting employee alcohol intake and make sure to serve plenty of food; and
- Promote safety and responsible drinking habits, such as reimbursing employees for ride-share services.
With thoughtful planning and clear communications, a company holiday party can be a fantastic bonding event for your workforce. By implementing the advice above, an employer can help ensure that this year’s party is precisely that.
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About Harrison Oldham
Harrison grew up in Mansfield, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University for his bachelor’s degree, where he met his wonderful wife, Kelsey. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas A&M, he attended SMU Dedman School of Law, graduating with honors in 2012. Today, Harrison and his wife live in Dallas, Texas with their son, Teddy.
Since graduating from SMU Law, Harrison has worked exclusively in the field of business law. He has spent time in private practice and in-house, working with clients of every size; from single person startups to Fortune 250 companies. Today his practice focuses on serving the diverse needs of businesses and individuals throughout Texas. You can learn more about Harrison by visiting his website, at: http://