Ho, Ho, Hold On a Minute

Harry is putting up a Christmas wreath, Anna is putting up Kwanzaa decorations and Sylvia is bringing in her dreidel. What’s a company to do about holiday decorations? Here are a few things employers should consider before putting up the holiday decorations and sending out party invitations.

Should employees be allowed to decorate their workspace?

What if someone in the office is “offended” by the decorations displayed by another employee and submits a complaint or objection to the employer? If sexually-oriented expressions can offend someone, it is the duty of the employer to ensure that this does not occur in the workplace. However, this is not true for religious expressions which differ from matters of sexually-oriented expressions that are regulated by state and federal laws. Treating speech and other expressions related to religious beliefs, observances, practices, etc., differently than non-religious speech or expressions is prohibited by law.

If an employer normally allows employees to decorate their workspaces with pictures or decorations, it may be considered discriminatory to ban decorations that are religious. Additionally, employers are prohibited from treating similar types of religious speech or expression differently because they relate to different religions.[1] For example, an employer cannot prevent an employee from decorating for Kwanzaa while allowing another to decorate for Christmas.

Employees do not have an absolute workplace right to engage in religious speech and expression. Employers may set reasonable restrictions relating to the size, location and manner of speech or expression. But, if an employer wants to prohibit religious expression altogether, they may raise both significant legal issues and major employee relations concerns.

Should employers decorate the workplace?

There is a difference between employees’ holiday decorations and employers’ holiday decorations. Employers should not be perceived as endorsing or supporting religion generally, or one religion over another. For example, employers may want to provide a general holiday theme rather than set a Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa theme. If electing to put up religious holiday decorations, employers may also want to consider workplace decorations during non-religious holidays to lessen the appearance of religious preference in the workplace.

Should an employer sponsor a holiday party?

Most employer-sponsored parties occur without any incidents. However, such things as personal injuries, third-party injuries and sexual harassment can possibly occur at any social event. Employers may also incur claims under both workers’ compensation and general liability insurance. A major concern is whether an employer should serve alcohol at a company-sponsored event. To be absolutely safe, an employer would serve no alcohol. However, this may not be desirable or practical. Instead, employers should take steps to mitigate legal and financial risks associated with the consumption of alcohol. [2]

An employer should also consider the moral implications of serving alcohol. How would you feel if you knew that a serious or fatal accident involving one of your employees might have been avoided had you taken reasonable steps to limit the consumption of alcohol? So, how should the employer celebrate the Holiday Season? Enjoy the Holiday Season by taking steps to alleviate alcohol-related risks and embrace and acknowledge religious diversity.

[1] Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals because of their religion in hiring, firing, and other terms and conditions of employment.

[2] Several of these suggestions have been adapted from the U.S. Department of Labor recommendations and tips for office celebrations, which can be viewed at the Department of Labor website.

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