Holiday Parties Gone Wrong: Is Your Company at Risk?

Did you get a letter from the EEOC after your last round of holiday parties?

Let’s hope not! But some companies might have. How could that happen, you might wonder?

The holiday season is synonymous with joy, celebration, and camaraderie. It’s that time of the year when companies come together to host holiday parties as a way to boost morale, reward hard work, and build a sense of community among employees.

However, beneath the festive veneer of these gatherings lie potential legal landmines that could spell trouble for your organization.

Is it an Award or Harassment?

Imagine a luxurious December holiday party hosted by a prominent company, where laughter and music fill the air. Amidst the festivities, Jonathon Sellers, an African American auto salesman, found himself at the center of a nightmare—one that would forever alter his perception of workplace gatherings.

Jonathon Sellers, a valued employee of Autos of Dallas, eagerly attended the event. What he didn’t anticipate was a moment that would leave a lasting scar—a trophy handed to him by management, labeling him as the employee “Least Likely to Be Seen in the Dark.”

For Jonathon Sellers, that trophy represented more than just a crude joke. It was a shocking manifestation of racial harassment, a deeply offensive act that targeted him based on his race and color.

After the party at work the harassment continued. Co-workers teased him, making derogatory remarks about his visibility in the dimly lit section of the auto dealership. Overwhelmed by the relentless hostility and racial insensitivity, Jonathon Sellers could no longer tolerate the environment he once cherished. In the end, he was left with no choice but to resign.

The story of Jonathon Sellers is not an isolated incident; it’s an illustration of the real and immediate threats that can turn a festive celebration into a legal catastrophe.

Come to the Party or You’re Fired!

Now, imagine another story—a story of an Administrative Assistant at Pediatrics 2000, a provider of pediatric health services in Manhattan. This employee, a Jehovah’s Witness, requested an accommodation to be excused from attending a company Christmas party. Her faith prohibited her from participating in gatherings with entertainment, immoderate drinking, or dancing.

While Pediatrics 2000 had previously allowed employees to decline attendance at the party for non-religious reasons, the moment the Administrative Assistant sought a religious accommodation, she was summarily fired. The company’s owner and founder justified this decision with a text message that read, “[T]his is your last day of employment. [W]e can’t tolerate religious privileges from anyone.”

These stories are cautionary tales that spotlight the legal dangers concealed beneath the veneer of holiday celebrations. Let’s take a look at 7 hidden hazards that could transform your holiday gathering into a legal disaster.

Potential Legal Landmines

1. Alcohol: A Ticking Time Bomb

Alcohol flows freely at holiday parties, but what happens when the celebrations get out of hand? The potential for excessive drinking and the associated liabilities should send shivers down your spine.

2. Harassment and Discrimination: A Silent Threat

In the festive haze, inappropriate behavior can rear its ugly head. Harassment and discrimination can silently creep into your holiday party, leaving scars that may never heal. The above example of award categories is a one way to trip-up here…and we didn’t even mention the mistletoe!

3. Wage and Hour Violations: A Looming Nightmare

Is your holiday party during work hours or tied to attendance? Beware of the nightmare of wage and hour violations such as Non-exempt employees who help set up the party or seek compensation for their “mandatory” attendance.

4. Religious Exclusivity: A Legal Minefield

Not everyone shares the same beliefs or traditions. Neglecting to be inclusive can lead to religious discrimination accusations.

5. Privacy Invasion: A Digital Nightmare

Smartphones capture every moment, but they can also expose your company to privacy nightmares. Unauthorized photos shared on social media platforms or employee discomfort and concerns over privacy violations can lead to further problems.

6. Liability and Insurance: A Looming Storm

Have you considered the storm of liability that could hit your organization if accidents occur? A guest suffering an injury at your party, resulting in legal claims and then disputes over insurance coverage, leaving your company vulnerable.

7. Gift Exchanges: A Potential Pitfall

Even well-intentioned gift exchanges can go awry. Consider Inappropriate gifts causing discomfort and offense, employees feeling alienated by thoughtless exchanges, and potential legal backlash due to insensitive or offensive gifts.

Throw a holiday party that is the “talk of the office” for all the right reasons.

Join us for our comprehensive class Hosting Safe and Legal Company Holiday Parties and you’ll leave equipped with the knowledge and tools to plan holiday parties that your colleagues will cherish while minimizing legal risks for your company. Click here to attend.

Don’t miss this opportunity to become the holiday party planning expert your workplace needs!

All participants will receive a Holiday Planning Checklist for HR from our 2024 Ultimate Guide of HR Checklists book!

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