CoAdvantage – For employers, the holidays can have a dangerous side. A season that stretches from October through New Year – encompassing Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas – this is ordinarily a festive and celebratory season full of revelries and time spent with loved ones.
Unfortunately, for employers, the holidays can also be a compliance minefield. Wild office parties that lead to accusations of harassment, leave requests for religious observances that lead to complaints of discrimination, holiday shifts that raise questions about compensation, and more – all of these can make this an incredibly challenging period for businesses to navigate equitably, fairly, and legally.
Here’s everything you need to know to ensure labor law compliance during the holiday season.
Can you make employees work on holidays?
In general, yes. No federal law requires private employers to give workers time off on holidays, even federal holidays. Note that some states may have requirements that the federal government does not.
Do you have to pay workers who work on holidays?
You will have to compensate employees for time worked according to their normal pay agreement, but employers are not required to pay overtime or double pay, unless working the holiday puts a non-exempt employee over 40 work hours for the week (then overtime rules would apply).
Otherwise, it’s not required. Many employers do, however, voluntarily offer special holiday pay rates as benefit and enticement to employees to work on days they’d otherwise prefer to have off.
Can you decorate for the holidays?
In general, employers should avoid the appearance of favoring one religion over others when putting up decorations in public areas. For example, you could easily decorate with a nonreligious winter theme – fairy lights, snowflakes, holly, etc. However, there’s tremendous ambiguity in this area. Courts tend to treat Christmas trees as mostly secular objects, for example, despite their name. “Displaying a Christmas tree and garlands does not violate any federal law,” Dianna Johnston of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Office of Legal Counsel told the Society for Human Resource Management.
More overt religious symbols (like crosses or nativity scenes) would be riskier territory, however, unless they are joined by symbols from other religious traditions.
When it comes to individual employee workspaces, it’s probably best practice to let workers decorate according to their personal preferences, so long as:
- Those spaces are not visible to the public,
- The decorations do not interfere with business, and
- The decorations do not impose an undue hardship on the employer or other employees.
Do you have to permit employees to take time off for religious observances?
Yes and no. The end of the year brings a host of religious festivities, including Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, and sometimes Ramadan. The law requires employers to accommodate their employees’ sincerely held religious beliefs, practices, and observances. So, it’s a good idea to permit these time off requests if possible. However, if permitting them would cause undue hardship, the employer can try to find an alternative accommodation, like allowing a shift swap or temporarily changing the employee’s work schedule.
Should you have a holiday party?
Holiday parties – especially if they involve alcohol – can create ample opportunity for employees to get up to mischief that could land the company in hot water. On the other hand, a party can be a great way for employees to come together to celebrate the holidays, blow off some steam, de-stress, and participate in a team-building experience.
Here, an ounce of prevention goes a long way. The party should be dry, or alcohol consumption should be limited (e.g., each guest gets two drink coupons). A supervisor or leader should discreetly monitor events for misbehavior and intervene if there are issues, including drunkenness, harassment, etc. If a harassment claim is made after a holiday party, take it seriously and investigate immediately.
Should you allow a gift exchange?
It’s up to the employer. A gift exchange can be a great bonding experience for employees, particularly if you don’t otherwise host a holiday party, and offer a nice break from normal work activities. Just make sure to set some ground rules to avoid tension and hurt feelings. Make sure employees are limited to work-appropriate gifts and limit the amount that can be spent on gifts.
Alternatively, you can set policies that simply disallow gift-giving during work hours. If individual employees want to exchange gifts, they can do so away from the workplace.
Can you force your employees to engage in holiday or religious observances?
In general, no. If you’ve hired a Santa impersonator, you can probably safely require him to say, “Merry Christmas” to customers as part of his duties. But otherwise, employees generally have a legal right to decline to participate in holiday or religious practices. You cannot force salesclerks to say “Merry Christmas” to customers, for example, if their religious beliefs would prevent them from doing so. Remember, religion is a protected class under federal anti-discrimination statutes. You can, however, make an accommodation by reassigning the clerk to a different but equivalent duty that doesn’t require them to interact with customers.
CoAdvantage, one of the nation’s largest Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs), helps small to mid-sized companies with HR administration, benefits, payroll, and compliance. To learn more about our ability to create a strategic HR function in your business that drives business growth potential, contact us today.