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Holiday Tips for Employers

Labor and Employment Alert | December 9, 2014
By: Nancy Conrad and Stephanie A. Kobal

It is that time of the year again – holiday parties, decorations and a generally celebratory atmosphere around the office. Unfortunately, these holiday festivities can place employers in a precarious situation. Employers frequently encounter the following scenarios during the holiday season:

  • Many employers place wreaths, trees and poinsettias around their offices during December. What if an employee, to accommodate his or her non-Christian religious beliefs, requests that the decorations be removed or that decorations associated with other religions be added? The U.S. Supreme Court has held that wreaths and Christmas trees are “secular” symbols, akin to items such as Santa Claus and reindeer. Employers may display decorations like ornaments, trees, wreaths and garland without violating the First Amendment or Title VII. Employers should, however, refrain from using clearly religious symbols, such as a nativity scene in office decorations.
  • The annual office party is another holiday tradition that can lead to potential issues. Employees frequently view the holiday party as a time to relax, have a good time and imbibe. Employers, however, can take proactive steps in advance of the office party. Employers can remind employees that workplace policies, including those relating to proper conduct, sexual harassment and dress code, apply at the party. If alcohol is being served, employers may consider limiting the number of bars that are open or providing employees with a limited number of drink tickets. Employers may also want to designate a supervisor or manager to provide discrete oversight during the event. In lieu of a holiday party held outside of work time, employers may consider hosting a longer, catered lunch on a Friday. Hosting a holiday event in the office tends to discourage conduct in violation of workplace rules.
  • The holidays generally tend to be a hectic time of the year for employers – offices are closed more often and employees request time off frequently. Flared tempers and disappointment can arise when holiday time off requests are denied. Employers can help to alleviate any issues by clearly communicating holiday time off policies and organizational expectations. Employers should note, however, that Title VII requires an employer to reasonably accommodate an employee’s religious observances, practices and beliefs. Examples of reasonable religious accommodations include flexible scheduling or voluntary shift substitutions or swaps. Thus, employers that are confronted with requests for time off to attend religious services should try to accommodate the request unless doing so would pose an undue hardship.

Following these tips may assist your company during the festive holiday season. If you need advice or have a specific question regarding your company’s holiday policies, you may contact Nancy Conrad (610.782.4909, conradn@whiteandwilliams.com), Stephanie A. Kobal (610.782.4942, kobals@whiteandwilliams.com) or any member of our Labor and Employment Group for further assistance.

This correspondence should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. The contents are intended for general informational purposes only, and you are urged to consult a lawyer concerning your own situation and legal questions.
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