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Holiday celebrations for everyone

Balancing the safety and interests of a diverse workforce with the desire to have fun
Employment law
Workers decorate a Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street, London, U.K., on Dec. 1. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

By Jeffrey R. Smith

The year is in its final days as we are now in December. The end of the year is cause for celebration for many, including those in the workplace. As employers prepare to wrap up the year and perhaps celebrate a little bit – or a lot – it’s important to remember legal liabilities and responsibilities they have towards employees, and how to avoid unfortunate circumstances that can quickly sap the season of its festive cheer.

Employers that host holiday parties can be commended for wanting to keep employees engaged by celebrating the company’s successes and giving them a chance to socialize with co-workers in a more relaxed environment as a way to wrap up the calendar year. However, employers need to make sure everyone has a good time, which means doing their best to ensure employees are safe from getting hurt or harassed.

Harassment in particular is one everyone’s radar given the rash of harassment stories that are coming to the forefront seemingly everywhere. Holiday parties are part of the workplace and any harassment that takes place at them is workplace harassment. Having an anti-harassment policy, a firm stance on it, and making sure employees are well aware of it will go a long way towards ensuring harassment doesn’t happen – because if it doesn’t only raise liability issues, but could have a negative ripple effect among the rest of the employees and contribute to a poor working environment. And if harassment does happen, dealing with it swiftly and appropriately will help avoid additional liability and let employees know they’re being protected.

And harassment isn’t the only concern at workplace celebrations. If the employer decides to allow alcohol to flow, it raises more issues. Intoxicated employees can be dangerous to themselves and others. Safety should be a paramount concern at these events, and a limit on alcohol along with provisions to help employees get home – or at least somewhere safe – should be a part of planning the the event.

So a holiday celebration is planned, safety is looked after, employees have been told to behave, and everything is ready to go. But what about the nature of the party? At this time of year, there are a lot of things to celebrate for people from all walks of life. Employers with diverse workplaces should keep that in mind as well – some employees might be celebrating Christmas, some Hanukah, and so on. Some may not feel like celebrating any particular holiday, other than just getting together with colleagues and putting a cap on the year.

Holiday parties should be welcoming to all employees and allow everyone celebrate without making anyone feel overlooked, so it’s a good idea to ensure celebrations don’t specifically exclude anyone based on their beliefs. Individuals wishing others a “merry Christmas” or “Happy Kwanzaa” shouldn’t be discouraged – the spirit behind such greetings is something to celebrate – but basing the entire celebrations around one particular belief system is probably overdoing it.

In many aspects, having a safe and inclusive holiday party involves basic common sense along with some consideration for everyone involved. With the proper preparation and policies in place, everyone can have a good time and hopefully stay safe and comfortable both during and after the celebrations – and employers can enter the new year without any legal or workplace culture concerns.

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Jeffrey R. Smith

Jeffrey R. Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today, a publication that looks at workplace law from a business perspective.
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