‘Tis the season — to be extra careful about holiday legal issues

Ah, the holidays. Time for good cheer, love of family and friends, warm memories — and the potential for some nasty legal hassles for HR.

Here are three potential areas of holiday legal issues for HR pros and how to handle each of them, courtesy of Jonathan Segal on the We Know Next blog and a team of attorneys from Snell & Wilmer:

Decorations

First things first: Companies cannot treat employees of different religions differently.

That’s true for all times of year, but things can get especially tricky around holiday time.

One example: holiday decorations. As a private employer, you can decide how you want to handle decorations — if you want to ban them, you most likely can (with some exceptions), as long as that ban is applied uniformly to all employees and all religions.

But banning decorations for fear that people will be offended by them may not be necessary, says Segal.

His advice: Recognize all holidays — a Christmas tree, Hanukkah menorah and a Kwanzaa harvest basket would all make for good decorations, so long as it doesn’t seem like you’re supporting one religion over another.

Accommodations

It’s nothing new for HR to accommodate staffers’ religious observances, beliefs and practices — as long as they don’t cause undue hardship.

And nothing changes around the holidays — if a Christian employee asks to have Christmas Eve off because his religion requires him to attend a service, that’s likely reasonable and you should attempt to accommodate him or her.

You know that accommodations can take other forms — allowing religious expressions at work or modifying grooming and dressing standards.

The real question: How can you tell what qualifies as an undue hardship?

The legal answer, of course, is, “It depends,” but the lawyers at Snell & Wilmer say a religious accommodation would most likely cause an undue hardship if it:

  • results in more than ordinary administrative costs
  • infringes on other staff members’ benefits or job rights
  • conflicts with other laws or regs
  • causes job inefficiencies
  • could potentially impact worker safety, or
  • causes other employees to carry a burdensome workload.

Holiday parties

According to a new survey released by workplace coaching consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., 83% of companies are planning year-end holiday parties.

For many HR pros, that news may scream holiday legal issues. But if you plan for them properly, holiday parties don’t have to so stressful.

Here are a handful of tips:

  • Call it a “holiday celebration,” not a Christmas party
  • Make it clear that employee attendance is not required
  • Re-publish your sexual harassment policy before the party, making it clear that harassment will not be tolerated
  • If alcohol is being served, find a way to limit the amount people can drink, either by closing the bar before the party ends or handing out a specific number of drink tickets, and
  • Arrange for designated drivers or cabs to drive people home if necessary.

 

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