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Season’s Greetings from Berke-Weiss Law PLLC: Helpful Tips For Spreading Cheer Without Exposing Employers to Liability During the Holidays

Employers frequently use the holiday season to thank employees for their hard work throughout the year, often with holiday parties. While employees enjoy these festivities, employers need to recognize that these merriments might expose them to legal liability.  An employer does not need to be a Grinch and stop all holiday celebrations.  Using these tips to reduce liability might prevent post-holiday blues for both employers and employees:

Religious Accommodations and Other Considerations

Generally, under New York law, an employer is prohibited from discriminating against an employee because of his or her sincerely held religious beliefs.  During the holidays, some employees may request an accommodation for religious observance, i.e. they may wear certain clothing or headpiece with religious connotations, or they may decorate their office space with religious symbols.  An employer must engage in a bonafide interactive process to determine if any accommodations must be provided to an employee in need of such an accommodation with respect to religious observance.  In addition, an employer may want to refrain from turning a festive event into a religious event by, for example, displaying religious symbols or making it about a specific religious holiday.

Wage and Hour Issues

Employers should take care when dealing with non-exempt employees, i.e. employees who are entitled to overtime pay whenever they work over 40 hours in a workweek.  Mandatory work events may force an employer to pay overtime to non-exempt employees who attend these events.  To minimize liability, an employer should make events such as an after work holiday party optional, limit the number of clients in attendance at the party, and refrain from asking employees to do certain tasks at the party so an employee does not claim he or she worked at the party rather than attending as a guest.

Excessive Alcohol Consumption

New York State employers may be liable for bad acts resulting from alcohol served at an employer-sponsored event.  To limit exposure, an employer may want to limit the amount of alcohol served at the party, designate certain exempt employees to keep an eye on employee consumption, or hire professional bartenders (with insurance) who will cut off someone’s intake if they appear intoxicated or are drinking excessively.  Employers also may want to offer food and non-alcoholic beverages to limit alcohol consumption or its effects.  An employer should also encourage employees to not drive after they have been drinking and may want to provide hotel accommodations or discounts or car service to transport employees home.

Sexual Harassment

Celebratory after hour work functions, particularly where alcohol is served, may lower inhibitions.  Prior to the event, an employer may want to circulate the company’s anti-harassment policies and other policies, such as personal conduct and dress code policies, relevant to its employees.  Employers may want to remind employees that sexual harassment can include inappropriate jokes, compliments, and romantic gestures.  Employers should not hang up mistletoe, and may want to reiterate that employees should not exchange inappropriate gifts.  Company anti-harassment policies are equally applicable to outside guests.  If an employee reports a complaint of sexual harassment, employers should investigate immediately.

Although there may be risks to employers who throw holiday parties, thoughtful planning and proactive prevention may go a long way in preventing liability and providing an opportunity for everyone to enjoy themselves as they celebrate the holiday season.

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year from Berke-Weiss Law PLLC!