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Holidays and the Workplace: Proactive Planning for the Best Possible Outcomes

The holidays are right around the corner.  Holiday decorations are popping up in the stores and soon the only music that will be playing on the air will be focused on the season.  In the workplace, however, the positive spirit of the holidays depends greatly on the employer. While some employers enthusiastically embrace the holiday spirit, others grow frustrated with juggling the busy time of year with the expectations of employees and fear of potential liabilities.  After all, society has changed over the last 50 years when it comes to December 25th. Some people view the day as a time to commemorate the birth of Christ, while others celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Ramadan. Many simply view it as a winter holiday. Because of this, there are many aspects of the holiday season that cause employers to tread lightly. An example of this is the seemingly simple choice of using “Merry Christmas”, “Seasons Greetings”, or “Happy Holidays” as there is no longer one single politically correct holiday greeting. Likewise, employers must be cautious about holiday celebrations, gift giving, and even the use of paid time off, if for no other reason than to comply with both federal and state laws which prohibit discrimination in the workplace based on various protected classes, including religion, national origin and race, to name a few. Before it’s too late, employers are encouraged to take this early opportunity to consider ways to build the organizational culture, mitigate risk, and develop inclusivity in this upcoming holiday season, and then ensure that expectations are clearly defined and communicated well to both managers and employees.

Employer-Sponsored Social Events

Workplace holiday festivities provide a window into the health of an organization. If the work environment is healthy and employees feel valued and respected, they will likely enjoy any type of holiday celebration that the employer provides. However, it is important to note that while employer-sponsored social events such as holiday parties are a great way to enhance a positive organizational culture; they also, in turn, create an opportunity for organizational liability.  Therefore, employers who strive to mitigate foreseeable risks while at the same time developing an organizational culture of inclusion during this season should:

  • Consider creative alternative options to a traditional party. How about giving employees an additional day off to spend with their families or having a party during the workday? This would benefit employees who are overwhelmed with evening obligations as well as reduce the risks associated with alcohol impairment.
  • Allow attendance at company events outside of the workday to be optional. Not all employees may be enthusiastic about attending a company party and requiring attendance may hurt morale. Remember also that if nonexempt employees are required to be there, they must be paid for their time.
  • Make sure that all employees are available to attend if the holiday party is in the office during working hours. No one should be stuck covering phones or working as a caterer while everyone else is at the party.
  • Be very clear about the dress code for holiday parties and keep in mind that not everyone owns, or is comfortable in, formal attire. Having to buy new clothing for the party may deter them from attending.
  • Remember that employees should never have to pay for party expenses. Likewise, if the company has recently experienced cutbacks or layoffs, throwing a lavish party will likely demoralize the current employees and have them questioning the culture of the organization.
  • Consider providing a cash bar and offering specialized nonalcoholic drinks for free instead of using a ticket system where non-drinkers may give their tickets to an alcohol drinking buddy.
  • Arrange a carpool or other transportation for an offsite party for people who are interested.
  • Prepare a small gift for each attendee, or give away raffle tickets upon arrival, or door prizes, for a few big-ticket items, if the operational budget allows.

Many employers now send a memo to employees in order to set guidelines and expectations regarding alcohol, behavior, gift giving, and other possible situations which could cause issues at a holiday party. Those memos may also kindly suggest to employees that a party is a great time to mingle with coworkers they don’t know as well and give a gentle reminder to not talk about work during the party, and avoid topics that could create discomfort or unease, such as politics and religion.

Finally, it’s important to define and communicate expectations for managers who should be watching out for budding trouble in order to neutralize an incident before it gets out of hand. Remind all leadership that they are role models for other employees, even outside of the workplace and working hours.

Gift Giving

There are several facets of gift giving that employers should consider before gifts are purchased.  First,

employers should remember that gifts on the basis of performance or achievement is an earned reward or bonus and not a gift. While all gifts for all employees don’t have to be identical, be sure to treat employees fairly so there are no perceptions of discrimination or even “playing favorites”.

Second, in determining appropriate holiday gifts for employees, employers should be careful to avoid selecting gifts that could be seen as discriminatory against religious beliefs, such as a nativity set, or items that could be perceived as harassment, such as clothing, jewelry or even personal care products. Remember also, politics, religion, gag gifts, and sarcasm never come across well in a workplace holiday gift.

Third, employers should remember that all compensation, including gifts, door prizes, etc., are subject to income tax unless then are considered to be “de minimus” according to the IRS tax code. “De minimus” gifts are gifts that are so small that accounting for them would be unreasonable or administratively impracticable. Keep in mind, though, that cash is never a “de minimus” gift and most cash equivalents such as gift cards are not considered “de minimus” gifts either, unless it is one to be exchanged for a specific item such as a ham for the holidays. If an employer gives a cash gift, they may want to consider “grossing it up” so that the gift is not diminished by the amount that the employees have to pay in taxes.

Finally, it’s a good idea to set boundaries in gift giving in the workplace by letting employees know that, unless they give gifts to all coworkers, gift giving should be done in private, preferably outside the workplace and working hours. Also, if there is a secret Santa exchange or a white elephant gift exchange in the workplace, the parameters should be communicated well as certain gifts in these types of exchanges could deeply offend people who may not understand the context of the exchange.

Navigating Workplace Schedules During the Holiday Season

It’s understandable that many employees want to use paid time off during the holiday season to supplement any paid holidays the company may offer. After all, holidays are for family celebrations and employees often travel to be with families who don’t live nearby. Long before the holiday season, the employer should determine how they will handle paid time off requests and review the organizational paid time off and holiday policies in order to both honor employee requests and provide optimal coverage to maintain company business. It’s important to accommodate employee requests in a systematic manner that demonstrates no unfair treatment.  

Finally, consider inviting employees into the holiday planning. Doing this creates a sense of ownership and fosters individuality and diversity that may allow multicultural events as employees share their cultural background through dress, food, stories, music and games. Employees may also suggest other creative ideas to both celebrate the holidays and build workplace camaraderie, such as beginning a new tradition by serving together on a community project. With a little planning and good communication, employers may safely and successfully navigate through the holiday season and build a positive workplace culture that will have a long-lasting impact on their employees.

For additional information on this topic, please contact us at www.newfocushr.com.

Written by: Kathi A. Walker, SHRM-SCP, PHR

                     Sr. HR Consultant

                     New Focus HR, LLC





New Focus HR is a human resources consulting and training company that services all organizations. Our expert team collaborates with businesses to attract, motivate, retrain and retain their biggest assets, employees. While engaged with an organization, our focus is to find solutions that improve the company’s internal HR-related practices while increasing results at the same time! Our focus. Your results.