It’s hard to believe it’s been almost three years since the last time many of your employees were in the workplace during the holiday season. Feeling good about it, you walk into your lobby to see the elegant Christmas pine that you helped decorate just the day before.
Oh, it is the most wonderful time of the year, you think. But as you behold the tree in its twinkling glory, an employee tells you: “That tree is inappropriate in the workplace.” Hmmm. I guess COVID-19 didn’t change everything.
Let me handle this directly and succinctly: The employee is wrong. The Christmas tree is not inappropriate to the workplace; Christmas can and should be acknowledged—so says the Jewish guy who proudly wears his grandmother’s chai around his neck. By the way, chai is a Hebrew letter that means “life.”
There is no reason to remove symbols of Christmas from holiday decorations. But recognize other holidays, too. A Hanukkah menorah and a Kwanzaa harvest basket would be nice additions.
Your encounter in the lobby, however, is just the beginning of a day of seasonal challenges. You head to the elevator where you hear employees complaining about the holiday party. “I don’t want to go, but I feel like I have to,” one says. Note to self: Practice the deep breathing exercises that got you through the last holiday party.
Back to the whiners. Of course, you would love to say, “Please, if you don’t want to go, by all means, don’t. Your present to me would be the absence of your presence.”
It’s OK to think it, but please don’t say it (unless you are retiring at the end of the year). If you are planning on retiring: Go for it (and tell me how good it feels)!
In fact, unless the holiday party is scheduled during working hours, be careful not to require or even strongly suggest that you expect employees to attend—or else you may ring in the New Year with a wage and hour claim. Yes, there is a chance an employee may claim the party is work.
Another person in the elevator is upset that the gathering is not called a Christmas party, while another objects that there is any holiday party at all. Oy vey, you think. OK, perhaps I am projecting my words on to you. But you get the idea.
Usually, it’s best to call your get-together a holiday party or seasonal celebration to maximize inclusion. But it is more than fine to mention the major holidays celebrated, including Christmas. In fact, please do. Inclusion does not mean eliminating anything that is not universally shared. It means the opposite!
As the elevator door opens to your floor, you see a large menorah with lit candles. Your receptionist thought it would add meaning to the season. Quickly address the fire hazard by blowing out the candles.
Then you notice two employees waiting for you. One is dismayed that a co-worker gave him a turquoise thong as a holiday gift. The other is unhappy that there are no decorations recognizing the Buddhist holiday of Bodhi Day.
To prevent the first headache, remind your employees all thongs must be red or green.
Take two. Remind your employees that gifts must be appropriate. Tell them that excludes anything sexual or otherwise inconsistent with your anti-harassment policy.
While you’re talking about gifts, consider also how you will deal with gifts of alcohol. What if you prohibit its possession on your premises?
Now, here comes my keen legal prowess: Send an e-mail to employees that reads, “If you receive alcohol as a gift, do not open or consume it at work, and please take it home the day you get it.”
To the second employee (FYI, Bodhi Day is Dec. 8), and the receptionist with the menorah, say that you’d love to involve employees in the decorating process, but they should know that you have final say over what gets put up—and what gets set on fire.
OK, it’s “party time.” You run so quickly to the bar that you knock over two colleagues in your zest to get there.
Be careful. Control the amount of alcohol you choose to provide at the party, as well as how much you yourself imbibe.
We know from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alcohol is a risk factor relative to harassment. We also know that it poses serious safety risks relative to driving. Ensure that you serve plenty of nonalcoholic beverages and food, too. Provide vouchers for cab rides home.
Another way to minimize legal risk and help those in need: Consider charging for drinks and donating all of the money to a charity. Match the amount collected. Choose a charity that appeals to as many of your guests as reasonably possible. I’ll take this chance to raise my personal passion: Give to your local animal welfare rescue. And consider adopting a four-legged friend, in particular, an older cat or dog (unless you already have too much unconditional love in your life).
Back to the party. Following a chat with your CEO, you notice two employees dancing suggestively. There is also a love train of employees, in which everyone puts their hands in the pockets of the person in front of them. There’s only one problem: Many employees don’t have pockets.
Because of situations like these, every year around this time there is a bonanza for plaintiffs’ lawyers: “Were you groped at your holiday party? Witness employees grinding on the dance floor? Call 1-800-IRETIRE.”
To minimize the likelihood that workers will have cause to contact one of these lawyers, you should remind employees that your anti-harassment policy also applies to social events and respond quickly and firmly to inappropriate behavior. Reminder: If you are in HR, there is no such thing as being a passive bystander if you see or hear inappropriate conduct or comments.
And pay attention to the music, too. At the risk of showing my age, Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” would not be my first choice. There is no good answer to Rod’s question!
Rihanna’s “Sex with Me” is no better.
Don’t worry about playing Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” But that’s about as religious as you should probably get (unless your organization is a religious one).
You hear discussions about an unofficial after-party. You know it is safer to swim in a lava pit than to attend an after-party, so you run to your office. Once there, you read through the holiday cards on your desk. Many are signed only with the sender’s name because no one knows what to say. If you say “Happy Holidays” are you declaring war on Christmas? If you say “Merry Christmas” are you disrespecting your colleagues who don’t celebrate Christmas?
A generic “Season’s Greetings” works best. But if you know the faith of the recipient or how they celebrate, it is more than OK to customize. I always wish my Christian friends “Merry Christmas.” To do otherwise feels disrespectful and uncharitable to me. And I like it when people wish me “Happy Hanukkah” if they know I’m Jewish. Hanukkah matters to me, so it feels good to me for the holiday to be acknowledged.
Acknowledging everyone is hard. But as I close my tale, I will try.
For those of you who celebrate Christmas, may the peace and happiness of Christmas be yours.
For those of you who celebrate Kwanzaa, may it be a joyous holiday.
For those of you who celebrate Hanukkah, I will be lighting a candle with you to celebrate our resilience.
For those whose seasonal holidays I did not mention, know that I honor them, and you.
For those of you who celebrate holidays at other times in the year or are of no faith but good faith, I wish you well just as well.
Yes, this still can be among the most wonderful times of the year.
Jonathan A. Segal is a partner at Duane Morris in Philadelphia and a SHRM columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_HR_Law.