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Prepare now for worry-free holiday season

It starts with break room tables laden with bowls of candy corn and “fun-size” chocolate bars. Then come turkey and Pilgrim decorations, which quickly give way to workstations sporting menorahs, Nativity scenes, Christmas trees, tinsel, and eventually New Year’s party hats and streamers.  

With the kickoff of the fall-winter holidays, employers need to consider not just festive celebrations but also potential pitfalls of the season. Whether it’s accommodating all the people who want time off, issues related to holiday parties, or employees offended by religious décor, employers need to know what they’re up against and focus on ways to ward off trouble.

Holiday-related absences
One problematic issue: time off. Some employees are going to want time off for shopping, cooking, and decorating. Others, though, will request time off for religious reasons, and that’s when employers need to be careful about denying requests.

Employers are required to reasonably accommodate requests for religious observances unless doing so would cause an undue hardship for their business, Julie A. Moore, an attorney at Steptoe & Johnson PLLC in Morgantown, West Virginia, reminded employers in an article in the November 2013 West Virginia Employment Law Letter.

“Accommodating employees’ religious beliefs during the holidays can be accomplished in a variety of ways,” Moore wrote. Sometimes employees can be permitted to come in early, stay late, or work through their lunch to make up for time missed for religious reasons. Letting employees trade shifts is another way to handle the issue.

Sometimes requests can’t be accommodated without causing undue hardship. “In the context of religion, an accommodation creates an undue hardship if it will cause more than a minimal cost or burden to the employer,” Moore says. But she cautions employers about claiming undue hardship just because some employees complain about a coworker’s time off related to religion. To show undue hardship, generally the employer needs to show evidence that granting the request would infringe on the rights of coworkers or cause disruption of their work.

Party perils
The holidays mean party time in many workplaces as coworkers celebrate a year’s hard work. Unfortunately, some people will celebrate by having too much to drink. “Too much alcohol at the office holiday party can cause hangovers for employers, not just employees,” Matthew A. Goodin, an attorney with Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., in San Francisco, wrote in an article in the December 9, 2013, issue of California Employment Law Letter.

When parties include alcohol, Goodin suggests offering plenty of food and nonalcoholic drinks and limiting consumption by using drink tickets or serving alcohol for just a limited time during the party. “Remind employees before the party that while they should have fun, the holiday party is a work event and professional behavior is expected,” he says.

Sexual harassment is another party concern. “Some employees think they can say or do things at a holiday party that they would never say or do in the workplace,” Goodin says. He also suggests reminding employees to report any inappropriate conduct promptly and to let employees know that complaints will be investigated.

Goodin also reminds employers to stress that party attendance is optional. “Keep in mind that there may be some employees who don’t feel comfortable attending a holiday party for a variety of reasons.” He cites the example of a Muslim employee who sued her employer because she was disciplined for not attending the company holiday party for religious reasons.

Are you trying to plan a holiday party that will boost morale and reward employees for a year of hard work but aren’t sure how to avoid the legal pitfalls that can come with such events? Check out this BLR webinar on CD, HR’s Holiday Party Guide: How to Host Safe, Legal, & Harassment-Free Celebrations, which offers practical tactics for avoiding a legal hangover in the aftermath of an office party.

Festive décor or religious harassment?
Holiday decorations, clothing, and accessories—particularly religious items—also can pose problems, but they don’t have to be unsurmountable. Although laws don’t prohibit religious displays in the private-sector workplace, “employers must be sensitive to the legitimate concerns of employees from harassment and accommodation perspectives,” Michael J. Modl, an attorney with Axley Brynelson LLP in Madison, Wisconsin, advised employers in a December 2013 article in Wisconsin Employment Law Letter.

Modl points out that religious proselytizing is more likely to spark harassment complaints than religious displays, but “it’s easy to imagine a situation in which one employee requests an accommodation to display religious symbols and another employee requests an accommodation to not be subjected to the symbols.”

“The key to office holiday décor is to be sure you don’t discriminate or favor one religion over another,” Moore of West Virginia says. First, decide whether to include religious symbols, such as a Nativity scene for Christmas. “If you do decide to include traditional Christmas symbols in your decorations, try to also incorporate into your decorating scheme holiday symbols that reflect other world religions.”

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