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Company holidays: Holiday-proof your company policy


It might be the most wonderful time of the year. But some employers may find that the winter months bring unique questions as they try to create an inclusive, fair work environment for their diverse staff.

From celebrations to office décor and vacation time, here’s how you can pull off  company holidays without a hitch this year.

Celebrate the season

Whether it’s a party, potluck, luncheon or gift exchange, company holiday celebrations are a prime opportunity to show appreciation for your employees.

However, today’s workplace is more diverse than ever, requiring extra sensitivity when it comes to planning these occasions. So, how can you move forward with care?

Begin by avoiding assumptions. Don’t presume that all employees share in the same holiday traditions. Expect that your employees have a variety of backgrounds and beliefs, even if you’re not aware of them.

Instead, as you organize your festivities for your company holidays, plan a celebration with a more general winter theme. Not only does this help to create a safe environment where all employees will feel welcome and celebrated – regardless of background or faith – but this neutrality also helps your business steer clear of creating potentially uncomfortable scenarios for your employees.

If you do choose to hold an event with religious themes, attendance must be optional. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), “An employee cannot be forced to participate (or not participate) in a religious activity as a condition of employment.”

It’s also worth noting that if attendance is required for an event, nonexempt employees must be paid for their time. If any celebrations are held over the lunch hour or after hours, for example, nonexempt employees may qualify for overtime pay.

As a best practice, it’s best to keep any company holiday celebrations optional so employees don’t feel pressured to participate in activities that may interfere with their personal beliefs.

For example, you might say, “We’re having a holiday party on Friday. I hope you can make it. If you can’t make it, no big deal.”

And, if employees choose not to attend, never pressure them to explain why.

Deck the halls with care

You may be tempted to create policies about the decorations for company holidays. This can be tricky territory because employees may feel that you’re infringing upon their religious beliefs, which can increase the likelihood of religious-based discrimination claims.

If you want to create a thoughtful environment where all employees feel appreciated and accepted, it’s best to refrain from developing policies that prohibit holiday decorations.

Instead, offer guidance for décor that’s simple and inclusive.

For example, invite employees to decorate their own workstations while leaving room to include any religious symbols of their choosing in their own personal spaces.

You might even organize a festive decorating event around company holidays, allowing employees to bring in items and providing some additional options like colorful strings of lights, wrapping paper, ribbon or garland.

Meanwhile, limit displays in public spaces in your building, such as hallways and entry ways, to secular seasonal décor to keep it friendly to your diverse workforce.

But what is considered secular? Are Christmas trees okay?

Technically, holiday displays at private companies are beyond the scope of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – and therefore, EEOC enforcement. However, if you’re seeking guidance on this topic, Christmas trees have been deemed as secular displays by the Supreme Court, and this has been acknowledged by the EEOC.

If you decide a Christmas tree display is acceptable in your workplace, you should still aim to create a welcoming, inclusive environment for all employees. For example, be open to allowing employees of other faiths to add their own public display as well, like a menorah.

Overall, try to avoid overly religious décor, such as a nativity scene, which could alienate employees with differing faiths. As an alternative, consider other seasonal items like holiday wreaths, snowmen, snowflakes and candy canes.

Give the gift of time off

While company holiday celebrations and holiday décor may not require official company policies, holiday vacation requests are one area where formalities are recommended.

Without an official company holidays policy or system to decide whose time off will be approved, you might find yourself overwhelmed by time-off requests. When one employee is given time off over another, it can create the perception of preferential treatment, leaving other employees feeling unappreciated.

Your policy can be kept simple. For example, it might state: “Fifty percent of staff is required to be on hand at all times. Time off requests will be approved on a first-come, first-serve basis.”

This type of policy alleviates the possibility of favoritism, and makes employees responsible for thinking ahead.

When granting time off, remember to look at your employees’ available vacation time. If they don’t have enough time off accrued, you’ll have to decide whether it’s acceptable for them to go into the negative or take unpaid time off.

However, keep in mind that if employees request time off to observe a religious holiday, you’re obligated to provide reasonable accommodations for them, unless doing so would cause more than a minimal burden on operations, according to the EEOC.

Examples of some common reasonable religious accommodations include flexible scheduling, voluntary shift substitutions or swaps, job reassignments and modifications to workplace policies or practices.

Get prepared

While there are a number of potential issues that can come with company holidays, you can avoid potential mistakes.

Take the time to make thoughtful decisions. By making sure your entire workforce feels appreciated and valued for who they are, no matter their background or beliefs, you’ll keep your employees engaged and avoid liabilities all at once.

Need more guidance?

Download our complimentary e-book, Employment Law: Are you putting your business at risk?, for more HR compliance pointers.