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Celebrations in the workplace — Federal

Celebrating birthdays, holidays or other events in the workplace can be a sensitive issue for many reasons. Some employees may not want to be reminded of age or have a private life intruded upon. Gifts and celebrations can be expensive and the employer or employees may not be able to contribute financially. Celebrations can be disruptive. Additionally, if a holiday or birthday is forgotten feelings can be hurt. On the other hand, recognition and social events can boost morale.

Employers may establish a policy to limit having celebrations or address issues that can arise from them. The number of employees in the workplace will likely play a role in defining what the policy might allow. An employer with a large number of employees may choose to have one celebration per month acknowledging all monthly birthdays, milestones or holidays to cut down on cost and to not interfere with work. Or the employer with a large number of employees may choose not to have any formal celebrations or even prohibit any form of them.  

Birthday policy

Establishing and defining a birthday policy must fit the particular employer’s needs. Employers can be creative in how properly to recognize employees consistent with company culture, if at all. Some considerations include: 

  • monthly celebration with cake or cookies
  • limited timeframe (such as last 30 minutes of work or after lunch break)
  • no group gifts
  • no decorations of cubicles/offices without the birthday person’s permission
  • no decorations – or limited decorating
  • go out for lunch as a group
  • potluck breakfast or lunch (for instance, everyone brings a dish to share)
  • no food for celebration (for instance, briefly recognizing birthday in meeting or during break)
  • joint birthday card signed by all co-workers
  • designate a “birthday coordinator”
  • do not announce the employee’s age
  • keep all discussion of family life or situation out, particularly family heritage
  • be consistent.

If employees wish to have their birthday acknowledged, employers should come up with creative ways that fit their workplace to celebrate.

Factors when organizing a celebration

More generally, employers should consider how to conduct celebrations whether they are on-site or off and whether they are during the workday or after hours. Celebrations can be minefields of potential legal issues. These can raise issues of discrimination, harassment and personal injury. Here are some steps employers can use to reduce those risks:

  • Consider having events without serving alcohol. If alcohol is served, arrange for a limit and consider providing transportation.
  • Have a plan, agenda, timeline or schedule of events and stick with it.
  • Provide any necessary security or support services.
  • Avoid any activities or discussion that targets certain belief patterns or groups of people. Religious and ethnic issues around holidays are often very charged.
  • Ensure all invitations and notices state that activities are not mandatory.
  • Keep social events social and not work-related. Scheduling away from the workplace can help.
  • Give adequate directions and information and ensure the location is accessible.
  • Ensure that management or those in charge remain at the event until it ends.
  • Immediately investigate any claim of inappropriate conduct.
  • Plan activities that appeal to all employees to avoid feelings of being “left out” or targeted.
  • Remind employees of the company culture of respect and the expectation that employees will treat each other with respect during the event.

Clear expectations about whether an event is voluntary or required is also important. Such a decision impacts whether responsibility for pay, worker’s compensation and liability attach.

Special considerations for religious celebrations and observances

Religious holidays and celebrations bring an increased risk. Although private companies have fewer restrictions than government agencies and contractors, they should strictly monitor religious celebrations in the workplace to lessen the likelihood of legal trouble. Managerial planning and attention can be utilized to help lessen the risks.

Differing characteristics of religious beliefs and cultures provide ample ground for disagreement, conflict and misunderstanding in the workplace. Issues can include:

  • religious attire
  • grooming practices (such as growing a beard or having piercings)
  • dietary restrictions
  • a hostile environment or discrimination
  • religious harassment
  • workplace proselytizing
  • retaliation.

If an employer does not ban religious celebrations, one way to avoid these problems is to be overly inclusive and accommodating. If an employer allow displays of religious symbols or exhibits, they should make sure to include and allow variety. For instance, if the employer displays a Christmas tree, they should also consider displaying other holiday items such as a menorah, a Kwanzaa kinara, a Bohdi Day tree, as well as secular ornaments such as wrapped presents and snowmen. An alternative to celebrating by specific holiday is to celebrate seasonally. This could entail having a winter ball or winter celebration rather than a “Holiday celebration” or “Christmas party.” Furthermore, never make participation in what could be construed as a religious celebration mandatory. For instance, if an employer chooses to play Christmas music, they should choose to play instrumental versions rather than versions that include deeply religious lyrics. Another difficulty in these situations often includes balancing the diversity and importance of religious beliefs with the rights of non-religious employees. As an employer, always err on the side of discretion and accommodation if the choice is made to allow religious celebrations at all.

Accommodations for time off for personal observances of religious holidays and events, of course, should be handled pursuant to policy and with consideration of federal and state protections for religious status and activity. If an employee does contact their employer with concerns about religious discrimination, the employer should handle the situation with upmost care. Furthermore, take necessary steps to prevent any retaliatory measure that might be taken against the complaining employee.