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Celebrating in the workplace — Minnesota

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.