Company celebrations, whether for holidays, birthdays, or other events may be a sensitive issue for several reasons, many of which are less than evident. Birthdays, for instance, often require employees to divulge their age. Holiday parties are often based upon religious under linings. 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 or even worse, employees may believe that an inadvertently neglected birthday or anniversary is discriminatory or retaliatory. On the other hand, recognition and social events can boost employee morale and, for many companies, serve as strong unifying events that boost long-run productivity.
The laundry list of potential problems that may arise during or as a result of company celebrations is endless. The potential issues range from sexual harassment, intoxication issues (i.e., employees that excessively drink), and to what extent company-wide policies (i.e., weapons policy) extend to off-site company celebrations or other sponsored events. While employers are undoubtedly never able to completely eliminate the risk inherent with company celebrations or parties, there are ways to minimize the risk, whether it is morale risk, legal risk, or other risk.
Employers may establish a policy to address issues arising with company celebrations and off-site gatherings. Whether it be simply assuring that company-wide policies already in place are expressly extended to cover both on-site and off-site celebrations, or whether it be drafting stand-alone “celebration” or “off-site” policies that dictate when, where, and how company celebrations will be governed. In either scenario, it is vital that the company affirm its expectations of its employees during such occasions. Like all policies, establishing and defining a company-wide “celebration policy,” or updating current policies to specifically apply to “celebrations,” both on-site and off-site, must fit the particular employer’s needs. Employers can be creative in how to properly recognize employees consistent with company culture, if at all. Some considerations include:
- monthly celebration
- limited timeframe (last 30 minutes of work after a lunch break)
- no group gifts
- no decorations of cubicles/offices without permission
- no decorations - or limited decorating
- go out for lunch as a group
- potluck breakfast or lunch (i.e. everyone brings a dish to share)
- joint birthday card signed by all co-workers
- refrain from holiday parties being affiliated with any religious denomination
- make sure that corporate-wide policies prohibiting weapons, harassment, discrimination, or other forms of inappropriate conduct are specifically included to govern company celebrations, regardless of they are occurring on-site or off-sites.
- designate a "birthday" or "celebration" coordinator
- do not announce the employee's age
- employ the use of "drink tickets" if theres is going to be alcohol present so as to help prevent employee's from consuming excessive amounts of alcohol
- make sure that non-alcoholic beverages are available if the company is going to provide alcoholic beverages
- avoid allowing supervisors and employees as serving as a company's bartender during the company celebration
- keep all discussion of family life, politics, or other "sensitive" to a minimum, if at all
- be consistent.
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 may use to reduce those risks:
- 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 events away from the workplace may 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.
- Take necessary disciplinary action against employees who violate the company’s well-established expectations for company celebrations.
Company celebrations can serve as a morale boosting events that promote unification and team spirit, but they also often result in incidents that prompt claims against employers. Organizations planning to sponsor Company celebrations should plan their events carefully and seek to minimize the most obvious risks of potential claims. In the end, companies have wide latitude in drafting policies that govern celebrations, both off-site and on-site. Accordingly, employers should take full advantage of the latitude provided to them in moderating and governing company celebrations by implementing policies (and requiring strict adherence to those policies) addressing potential issues. At all times, the company should apply its “celebration policies,” like all policies, in a fair and consistent manner.
Not everyone loves birthdays or surprises
When an employee tells you that they don’t want a surprise birthday party, you’d best oblige them, or you could face a discrimination suit and a nearly half a million-dollar jury verdict!
As the Washington Post, New York Times, and Twitter scrolling reported, a Kentucky-based medical laboratory, Gravity Diagnostics, was found liable by a jury for disability discrimination when it fired an employee who suffered from an anxiety disorder that caused panic attacks. As a result, the jury awarded $450,000 in damages for lost wages and emotional distress. However, it’s the series of events that prompted the employer’s actions that are truly extraordinary.
Prior to his birthday in 2019, the employee asked his employer if they could skip the festivities this year, due to his anxiety disorder. However, somewhere in that game of office telephone, the message got lost. So, on that fateful birthday, the employee walked into work, and to his horror, there awaiting him was a birthday party—in his honor. The employee’s colleagues and a banner lined Gravity Diagnostics’ break room to give him birthday wishes.
The employee quickly began to suffer a panic attack and, instead of sticking around for the celebration, grabbed his lunch and hid in his car in the parking lot. The next day, in a meeting with supervisors, the employee was chastised over his behavior during the celebration. Unfortunately, in that same meeting, the employee began to suffer a second panic attack. The parties naturally interpret what happened next differently, but the employee told his supervisors to be quiet, balled his fists, and became red-faced. Concerned by the behavior, Gravity Diagnostics promptly terminated him.
The employee sued Gravity Diagnostics for disability discrimination in response to these events. The jury found that the employee suffered an adverse employment action based on his anxiety disorder, and awarded him $150,000 in lost wages and $300,000 for emotional suffering, making this quite the expensive birthday party.
There are several lessons that employers can draw from this saga. First, what constitutes a disability under federal and state law is broad. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act and state anti-discrimination laws generally prohibit discrimination and require reasonable accommodations for disabilities, which includes mental disabilities in addition to physical ones. Additionally, as our society becomes increasingly more receptive to mental health concerns, juries across the nation will be more willing to find in favor of plaintiffs and against employers in these cases.
Second, if an employee brings specific concerns to your attention, it is important to listen and respond appropriately to those concerns. If the concern is connected in some way to the employee’s health – whether mental or physical – this becomes even more consequential. If the employee’s concern involves a request that is relatively simple and easy to grant (e.g., “please do not throw me a birthday party”), it may be best simply to agree to the request. If it is somewhat more complicated, it may be necessary to engage in the interactive process that is required under disability discrimination laws. In this case, it was significant that the employee brought his wishes to his employer well in advance of the birthday in question.
Third, and finally, confronting an employee like this can backfire. Instead of chastising the employee, this miscommunication could have served as a teaching moment for both parties. Many employees have introverted tendencies (without mental disabilities), and employers should develop ways to work with those employees. While many employers emphasize the importance of being a team player, the focus should be on how well the employee works with others, and not necessarily on how they socialize with others. Although employees should engage with their co-workers in a civil manner, not everyone is comfortable with the same type or level of social interaction or friendship in the workplace, and a wise employer will seek to engage those employees in a manner with which they are more at ease.