Santa Claus is coming to town, and he’s bringing one big bag of liability.
Holiday Decorations in the Office
Holiday and religious decorations in the office can be a touchy topic, especially these days. So how should an employer handle holiday decorations? Consider the diversity of your workforce (and perhaps your customer base as well) when deciding what sort of holiday displays, if any, to allow. It is important to know that, firstly, holiday displays by a private (as opposed to public) employer are permissible, even if religious. However, every employer should be careful about pushing its personal religious beliefs on its workforce. Secondly, employers may also allow employees to decorate their own workspaces with holiday-themed items, including religious ones. Thirdly, the Supreme Court has held that certain holiday symbols are “secular” in nature and do not count as religious symbols. These neutral symbols include Christmas trees, wreaths, lights, Santa Claus, and reindeer.
Ok, so say an employer decides to put up a Christmas tree in the office and a sled in a window display. What’s the worry for the employer now? . . . Clumsy employees. Make sure employees are able to easily navigate around that Christmas tree, and that there aren’t any strands of lights or electrical cords or tree skirts to trip over. Workplace injuries are lurking around every corner! Now what about that sled in the window? In a North Carolina workers’ compensation case, an employee was injured when she was asked to move a sled display that was used for the holidays. The sled was on a high shelf, she was on a ladder, and when she started to move the display, the sled started to slip. When she grabbed the sled to stop it from falling (and potentially injuring even more employees), she injured her lower back. The employee suffered compression fractures and the injury was compensable. Clark v. Wal-Mart, 360 N.C. 41, 619 S.E.2d 491 (N.C. 2005). Just be aware that holiday displays can increase the potential for work-related injuries.
The Infamous Holiday Party
So now that the office is appropriately decorated, the next source of concern is the yearly holiday party – in whatever form it takes. What’s the easiest way to lower risk related to the holiday party? Avoid alcohol. Alcohol is the root of all evil when it comes to holiday parties. The biggest concerns are alcohol-related injuries (which could potentially qualify employees for workers’ compensation, unless the intoxication exemption can be proven) and incidents of sexual harassment.
Here are my top 10 suggestions for limiting employer liability when it comes to the holiday party:
- Do not call it a “Christmas” party, try one of these instead: holiday party, seasonal gathering, winter celebration, end of the year party, New Year’s party, etc
- BEWARE OF ALCOHOL
- If you do choose to allow alcohol, do not do an open bar – use drink tickets and think about scheduling the event for earlier in the day when people are less likely to drink heavily
- Also, if you choose to allow alcohol, think about holding your event off-site, using professional bar tenders, and not paying for the drinks
- No mistletoe!! This invites sexual harassment claims
- Choose entertainment that is appropriate for a wide range of interests – no vulgar comedians and no physical activities that could cause injuries (especially if you are allowing alcohol)
- Choose a professional atmosphere and avoid naturally provocative places such as bars
- Invite significant others or families – this will typically decrease your risk for sexual harassment claims
- To minimize your workers’ compensation risk, dissociate the holiday function from the employees’ jobs by letting employees know that attendance is not mandatory and do not hold any training or award presentations
- Also, to minimize your workers’ compensation risk, be cautious about inviting vendors, clients or others with a business relationship
These materials have been prepared by Rudman Winchell for educational purposes only. They should not be considered legal advice. The transmission of this information to you is not intended to create a lawyer-client relationship. Readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel. You should not send any confidential or private information to Rudman Winchell until a formal attorney-client relationship has been established, in writing.