Holiday Parties – How to have festive fun without HR horror?

Human Resources can certainly come off as the “fun police,” particularly around the holidays. Please understand that your HR team wants nothing more than to be the ambassadors of holiday hugs and warm fuzzies, HOWEVER while you are fa la la la laughing at Comical Carey’s rather colorful white elephant gift your HR team is watching the look of indignation creep across Litigious Lisa’s face. Here are some tips to enjoy the holidays without turning your HR team into the Grinch squad.


Ugly Sweaters are Ugly…Not Naughty

Dress code be darned, bring on the precariously LED-lit synthetic fiber sweaters, festive skin-dyeing plastic jewelry, and scratchy tinsel wrapped wrists! The Ugly Sweater Contest has become a workplace staple over the past decade, giving even the meekest member of your staff a chance to let their freak flag fly. As with any good wholesome workplace fun, there will always be “that guy” (or gal) who takes it a smidge (or 1000 miles) too far (a la, Funny Ugly Christmas Sweaters). What’s the big deal? It’s just a funny sweater, right? Notsomuch. You see, the tricky thing about sexual harassment is that you can be sexually harassing someone without even knowing it; there is such a thing as bystander harassment. A hostile work environment exists when an employee is repeatedly subjected to offensive conduct (including being bombarded by offensive sweaters). It isn’t necessary that the offensive conduct be specifically directed to the offended employee, but rather that the employee feels that he or she must suffer the offensive conduct as a condition of employment. Additionally, everyone else can think the sweater is HILARIOUS, but as long as a reasonable person could find it offensive, it’s offensive enough to meet the hostile work environment standard. So, wear your ugly sweaters proudly, just keep ‘em clean.


Stick With a Two Drink Maximum and Sponsor a Rideshare

Holiday parties are a wonderful way to build camaraderie while cutting loose and bonding over merry mixed drinks. Although most adults know their limit, I like to call office holiday parties “rookie” events. These are the times that non-drinkers imbibe in order to fit in or curb social anxiety. It’s when the nog goes straight to the noggin that cocktails become a recipe for a painful HR hangover. As inhibitions get lowered, the opportunity for inadvertent offensive conduct arises: jokes get louder; friendly hugs get a little too cuddly; and someone will undoubtedly produce a sprig of mistletoe (seriously, where does it come from?!).

Additionally, vicarious liability concerns for auto accidents arise with every drunken departure. Best practices here? First, have the holiday party in the afternoon. A daytime setting can keep everyone in a more professional mindset. Next, serve plenty of food that everyone can eat. Make sure there are alternatives for food intolerances (serving all deep fried foods is a recipe for disaster for Gluten Free Gale who just finished a bottle of champagne because there is nothing she can eat). Third, $pring for an alcohol server certified bartender and provide a limited number of drink tickets to each employee and guest. The drink tickets are your first line of defense, however a trained bartender will recognize Ticket Collector Tracy and cut her off before she shows Super Shy Shawn her lucky holiday party panties (and the matching bra!). Finally, rather than worrying about potential car accidents coming back on the company, consider distributing ride passes to your guests. Options like Uber Events allow you to give your employees safe and flexible transportation options (and the Uber Events website says you only pay for the rides they actually use). Cheers!


Merry Christmas?! Celebrate Diversity This Holiday Season

The phrase “Merry Christmas!” has gotten a lot of press in the last few years as Starbucks caught an unreal amount of flack for changing its holiday cups and some Christian conservatives have declared a “war on Christmas” (described in the New York Times as “a sometimes histrionic yuletide debate over whether the United States is a country that respects Christianity.” Liam Stack, Dec. 19, 2016.) A lot of individuals and business owners alike are terrified to utter the word “Christmas” for fear of a social media slaughter. So what’s the deal with “Merry Christmas” in the workplace?

The short answer is that privately-owned companies can celebrate whatever holiday they like so long as the celebration of the holiday is not undertaken in such a way as to create a hostile environment for those who do not hold the same religious beliefs. For example, forcing a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to take off their colander (official church headgear) and strap on a pair of reindeer antlers or else be demoted/fired/publicly humiliated will not fly under Federal and State anti-discrimination laws. Rather than focusing on making sure your holiday party matches your own definition of the holidays, I would challenge employers to create a holiday party that reflects the diverse beliefs of all employees. Christian employers need not be afraid to display a nativity scene, but should also welcome employees to contribute to the decorations with their own holiday traditions. How about a large board on display with multi-colored markers that asks all attendees to write their own personal seasonal greeting for all to see?

What about public employers? Well, you guys have to worry about that pesky 1st Amendment Establishment Clause that forbids government speech that endorses religion. Overall, Courts have ruled that religious holiday items may be displayed by government entities, however they need to be in the company of secular symbols like a Christmas tree, Santa Clause, etc. Again, this seems like a lovely opportunity to embrace the diversity of your workforce and encourage everyone to contribute their own holiday traditions in non-offensive holiday décor.


Holiday Party Activities Should Be the Definition of Good Clean Fun

Parties are more fun with entertainment and holiday parties are no different. What kinds of entertainment will dial up the fun while dialing down your HR team’s need for anxiety meds? First, let’s talk gifts. Rather than a gift exchange (red flags everywhere…and don’t be cheap), try a holiday raffle. My favorite way to do this is to put together a few prize packages that will have broad appeal (in 2017 EVERYONE who was anyone wanted an Instant Pot), then allow your employees to enter the raffle for the prize that they want. It’s good to have a few consolation prizes like coffee or movie gift cards that can be raffled off once the bigger prizes are gone. What about activities? You should definitely consider the nature of your employees when choosing holiday party activities (i.e. a room full of introverts will plot your death if you make them play charades). Also remember that activities with a lot of physical touching (please, for the love of everything holy, no trust falls) or suggestive movements (bobbing for apples) will send your HR team into cardiac arrest. Here are a few HR-approved holiday party activities: decorating cookies or stockings for a homeless shelter; silly relay races; and team-building activities like building gingerbread houses or snowmen with industry-specific components. Finally, we have entertainment. Depending on your budget, a little live jazz with some holiday flair is classy and non-offensive.

For real though, “tasteful” is the word of the day when it comes to entertainment. So, before you get this party started on your Beats Pill by shuffling your entire music library, remember that your HR team would like to sleep tonight. Your playlist should include some holiday favorites mixed with some of the tamest (not lamest) popular music you can find. I’m serious, this is a Mariah Carey/John Legend/Taylor Swift/select Maroon 5 song event (sorry Macklemore, I love you, but this is not your night). As for other forms of entertainment…Monster trucks? Sure! Dueling pianos? Right on! Strippers? Are you freaking kidding me?! Not even if your company is a strip club. Yep, what your employees may be willing to tolerate in order to make a living is not consent to be forced to be exposed to it as entertainment (don’t believe me, Google “stripper sues for sexual harassment”). Ultimately, your employees will have a fabulous time as long as your holiday party makes them feel appreciated and festive.

Thank you for reading and I hope these holiday party tips were both entertaining and informative. If you have more specific questions about your holiday party, be sure to contact Human Resources Experience, LLC, for culture-driven HR and proactive legal advice!