In the workplace, the holiday season can include certain employer-encouraged activities to celebrate the most wonderful (and stressful) time of year and build company moral. But in some cases, what was meant as fun and games can be the cause of employer liability. Employees who don’t celebrate any of the holidays might consider employer-encouraged activities as another reason for a complaint of hostile work environment, discrimination, or harassment.
If you face holiday harassment, consult a lawyer who will recognize whether or not you have a case under the law.
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6 Types of Holiday Workplace Harassment
Throughout the holiday season, six types of holiday harassment rise to the surface of filed complaints. Employees need to be aware of their employment rights during the holiday season. Holiday festivities often cause employees and employers to relax professionalism and “in good fun” partake in behaviors that are illegal.
1. Holiday Greetings
In a move to inclusivity, employers tend to prefer that employees wish clients and coworkers a simple “Happy Holidays” rather than using a religious specific greeting. However, some employers see certain greetings as a way to protect their faith, and some may want to require employees to use a specific religious holiday greeting. This can create an environment for religious discrimination.
On the flipside, employers can’t expressly prohibit employees from using their religious holiday greeting of choice. They might outline certain requirements for client interaction but cannot create a rule demanding that you only say “Happy Holidays.”
For example, Angela doesn’t celebrate any holiday during the winter months, but her employer told her that she has to say “Merry Christmas” to customers. Other employees wish clients other holiday greetings, according to their religion or celebration, but Angela is an atheist. She feels that her employer is discriminating against her for her lack of religion.
2. Holiday Decorations
Employers can regulate your workspace and clothing. However, they need to do this consistently for every employee and not just specific employees. For example, an employer may ask that an employee removes a Jewish menorah from their desk to cut down on clutter, but the employer should also then ask an employee with a large framed photo on the desk to remove it.
Holiday decorations within the office should be careful not to offend other workers with different faiths. Snowflake decorations with fake pine garlands are acceptable, but a manger scene or menorah could offend workers. Also, decorations should not make work spaces hard to navigate.
3. Holiday Work Festivities
The holidays can be a difficult time for non-religious or the non-interested employees. While employers might want to encourage morale-boosting holiday parties, some workers just might not want to participate. But not participating in holiday festivities can sometimes gain the harassment of other coworkers.
During a decoration competition or holiday dress-up party, employees still exercise certain rights. A company-wide decoration contest should not for employees to participate. An employee has the right to say no and no one should sneakily decorate that employee’s work space. A boss who wants an employee to dress up as Santa, an elf, or the Grinch can face discrimination charges if the employee refuses and then is repeatedly asked or given a hard time about their decision.
4. Holiday Party Sexual Harassment
During the holiday season, the claims of sexual harassment during company parties skyrocket. Between the alcohol and party vibe, workers and management relax and sometimes make poor decisions. Employers might try to dodge liability for sexual harassment that occurred during a work-sponsored holiday party, but the law still might hold your employer accountable. It doesn’t matter if the holiday work party is after hours or not on company grounds, an employer can be liable for a sexual harassment complaint.
Signs of Sexual Harassment
Unwanted and unwelcome touching
This can be anything from excessive hugging to forced kisses under the mistletoe. Sometimes, coworkers can get too physical during holiday dancing. Any of these types of actions and similar ones are considered sexual harassment, especially if the attention is unwanted.
Inappropriate sexual gifts
Some gifts are just inappropriate between coworkers, inside joke or not. Any gifts that are subtly or overtly sexual should not be given to coworkers, employees, or managers. Inappropriate gifts include mean, sexist, cheap, or racist gifts.
Sexual remarks or propositions
Whether inebriated or not, coworkers nor bosses should not make comments about a worker’s appearance. Sexual comments to a fellow worker are rarely appropriate in the workplace.
Workers should not be pressured into playing party games that they don’t want to. For example, some workers might be uncomfortable with “Cards against Humanity” and “Truth or Dare.”
5. Wages and Mandatory Holiday Work Parties
When workers are required by their boss to attend the company holiday party or another mandatory event, the boss is obligated to comply with wage laws. This means that hourly, non-exempt employees should receive at least minimum wage for each hour of mandatory attendance. In some cases, employers might need to pay overtime hours for mandatory work parties. But the law does not require salaried, exempt employees to be paid during such work events.
6. Holiday Vacation Days
Although the law obligates employers to make reasonable accommodations for the religious beliefs of employees, employers must be careful not to give preference to one group of employees over another. No religion should receive more preference than another. This also means that employers should not give preference or not to someone without any belief.
Fight For Your Employee Rights This Holiday Season
Employers and employees often believe that actions that happen outside of work or work hours are not covered by the law. However, activities that are associated with work such as holiday parties still fall under the jurisdiction of employment law.
If you have experienced harassment or discrimination during the holiday season or at a work party, contact an employment lawyer who will know how to navigate your case and your rights under the law.