‘Tis the Season for HR Holiday Mishaps

With the holiday season fast approaching, many employers are looking for special ways to reward their employees for a job well done.  Whether you provide holiday gifts to employees, or invite them to a jingle bell-rockin’ holiday party, planning ahead is essential for your holiday celebrations to go off without a hitch. Here are some important considerations when making a plan for holiday cheer.

To Party, or Not to Party?

Employers should first ask themselves the question – why have a party? Is the event merely a celebration of the season, in which case a festive party might be the way to go, or is the goal to bring employees together to engage in additional teambuilding? If the goal is teambuilding, is a party-appropriate, or would your team benefit more from participating in a cooking class together, or working through an escape room? Whatever you choose, keep in mind that the holiday activity should be an event that employees will enjoy! Alternatively, ask the question, “Would employees appreciate an afternoon off more than a party?”

If you choose not to host a holiday party, consider other activities that might create goodwill among employees and be in keeping with the holiday season. For example, you might consider hosting a toy drive for children in need or having employees serve meals at a homeless shelter, perhaps along with a small staff gathering after.

Work or Play

Will your party be hosted during work hours, or after hours? Is attendance voluntary or mandatory? Will guests include your employees’ significant others and children? Will you invite customers and clients? Be aware that holding your event during work hours, requiring employee attendance, or choosing to include customers and clients on your guest list, may transform your purely social engagement into working time. This difference could result in potential liability for wages and overtime if party hours result in employees working more than 40 hours in the workweek.

Regardless of whether all employees will be paid for their attendance, employers should consider choosing a few employees to “work” the party. These individuals can create a safety net for the organization by acting to prevent and quickly address issues like overly intoxicated guests or inappropriate behavior.

Food and Drink

Perhaps the most significant decision that employers must make with respect to holiday parties is whether or not to serve alcohol. Serving alcohol raises the possibility of legal action due to employee injuries or harassment, and taking preventative measures is the key to protecting the organization from these risks.

If alcohol will be served, consider hiring professional bartenders. Professional bartenders will check IDs and cut off drinkers that appear intoxicated. Be sure to serve plenty of food, and, as an additional preventative measure, you might consider reducing the risk of over-service by limiting drinks through drink tickets. Consider also providing alternative transportation in the form of cab or rideshare services, such as Uber or Lyft, for anyone who has had too much to drink. Finally, prior to the celebrations, you should remind employees that they are expected to consume alcohol responsibly, and pursuant to your company policies, including your anti-harassment policy. If someone is engaging in harassing behavior, your “working” attendees will need to put a stop to it and take appropriate follow-up action.

Additionally, although the provision of alcohol often presents the most risk to employers, food service can also prove tricky. Many people have food allergies, dietary restrictions, or restrictions based on religious observance. Holiday party menus should be chosen with care to ensure there is something for every employee, no matter their need. Nothing communicates being “left out” more than not having a viable refreshment option provided at an employee appreciation holiday party.

Gift or Gift Horse?

Some employers choose to forgo a party in favor of providing employees with holiday gifts. However, this approach can be fraught with issues as well. In general, any amount – even if a gift – transferred from an employer to an employee is considered a part of an individual’s gross income and, therefore, taxable. While the Internal Revenue Code includes an exception for “de minimis fringe benefits,” cash gifts and cash equivalents (i.e., gift cards) are not excludable. Employers should consider the income tax implications when making gift selections, as the determination of whether a gift constitutes a de minimis fringe benefit will depend on the facts and circumstances of the particular situation.

We hope these tips make your holiday celebrations a hit instead of a headache. For additional information, please call our hotline at 877.662.6444.