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Celebrating in the workplace — Massachusetts

Company celebrations, whether for holidays, birthdays or other events can be a sensitive issue for several reasons, many of which are less than evident. For instance, birthdays often require employees to divulge their age. Holiday parties are often based upon religious underpinnings. Gifts and celebrations can be expensive, and the employer or employees may not be able to contribute financially. Celebrations can also be disruptive to employee workflow. Additionally, if a holiday or birthday is forgotten, feelings can be hurt or even worse, employees may believe a presumably inadvertently neglected birthday or anniversary can be 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 increase productivity.

The laundry list of potential problems that can arise during or as a result of company celebrations is endless. The potential issues range from sexual harassment, intoxication issues (when employees excessively drink) and to what extent company-wide policies (such as a weapons policy) extend to off-site company celebrations or other sponsored events. Considerations regarding the physical limitations of employees during events such as company-sponsored golf outings should also be considered. While employers are undoubtedly never able to completely eliminate the risk that accompanies company sponsored celebrations or parties, employers can implement rules and policies to minimize their risks. Employers may establish a policy to address company celebrations and off-site gatherings. In adopting such a policy, it is vital that the company affirm its expectations of its employees during onsite and offsite company sponsored celebrations. The policy 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:

  • a collective monthly celebration
  • limited timeframe (such as the last 30 minutes of work or after lunch break)
  • a prohibition on 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
  • joint birthday card signed by all co-workers
  • refrain from parties affiliated with any religious denomination or political party
  • designate a “birthday” or “celebration” coordinator
  • do not announce the employee’s age.

Employers should also consider how to conduct celebrations, whether on-site or off and whether during the workday or after hours. Celebrations can create potential discrimination claims, harassment claims and personal injury claims. Here are some considerations employers can implement to reduce those risks:

  • If alcohol is served, arrange for a limit and consider providing transportation.
  • Employ the use of “drink tickets” if there is going to be alcohol present so as to help prevent employees from consuming excessive amounts of alcohol.
  • Make sure that non-alcoholic beverages and food are available if the company is going to provide alcoholic beverages.
  • Avoid allowing supervisors and employees from serving as the company’s bartenders during the company celebration.
  • Have a plan, agenda, timeline or schedule of events and stick with it.
  • Provide any necessary security or support services.
  • Avoid religious and ethnic holiday celebrations.
  • 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-site.
  • Ensure all invitations and notices state that activities are not mandatory and provide alternative activities with no physical requirements for those who may have physical limitations.
  • 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.
  • Promptly investigate any claim of inappropriate conduct.
  • Plan activities that appeal to all employees or that can be enjoyed by 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.
  • Consider the company’s drug and alcohol-free workplace policy before scheduling any events.

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 when drafting these policies. The company should apply its “celebration policies,” like all policies, in a fair and consistent manner, being careful to document any exceptions made to the policy.

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.