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6 Holiday Party Tips for Employers During the Pandemic

2020 has been a difficult year for all of us, especially in the workplace. To increase morale and social interaction amongst employees, many employers want to host holiday celebrations this season in spite of the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic presents. Below are six key issues to consider:

1. Select Appropriate Venue.  As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, employers must first seriously consider whether or not to host a holiday celebration this year. If you don’t want to skip the celebration, for some employers this will mean hosting a virtual celebration event, and for others, it may mean arranging for an in-person event. Either way, employers should consider how many employees (and possible guests) will attend the event and if it is in-person, ensure that the venue is large enough to adhere to federal, state and local COVID-19 social distancing and hygiene guidelines.   

2. Determine & Control Alcohol Consumption. Pre-planning also should involve whether you will offer alcohol at the holiday celebration.  For virtual events: employers could consider sending employees a holiday meal or libation or a gift card and suggested (but not requiring) the employees to purchase food or beverage of their choice to consume during the virtual event.  Provide clear guidelines on what beverages can be consumed during the virtual event and encourage employees not to participate in the virtual event while driving. If you opt to host an in-person event, confirm the venue allows alcohol consumption and that it holds a current permit for occupants to consume alcohol on its premises.  If you have a vendor who will serve the drinks, ensure that they adhere to all COVID-19 health and safety guidelines  (e.g., wearing a mask, gloves, and providing disposal cups for consumption).  Also, provide tickets to your employees that limits their consumption to 1-2 drinks, and inform them before the event that each guest will only receive 2 drink tickets.  Order sufficient food and an assortment of non-alcoholic beverages.  For all items for consumption at the party, ensure that you adhere to all COVID-19 and OSHA guidelines.  

3. Unless your organization is a religious institution, choose a neutral party theme. Select a neutral theme and decorations or virtual meeting backgrounds and images to demonstrate the organization’s efforts to promote the diversity and inclusion of your entire workforce. 

4. Reiterate company policy expectations.  To prevent harassment claims, ensure that your anti-harassment and discrimination policy is current. Reiterate to your employees that all company policies remain in effect during the holiday event by including that on the communication regarding the event. For virtual events, remind employees to adhere to professional communication verbally and when using chat features for the virtual event.

5. Minimize Risks of Wage & Hour Claims for Non-Exempt Workforce.  In the communication inviting the employees to the holiday party, explain the event is completely voluntary, and thus, attendance is not mandatory.  Instruct all employees – exempt and non-exempt employees – not to engage in any work while at the party but to enjoy the social interaction with their colleagues.

6. Reiterate Social Distancing.  Due to the ongoing COVID pandemic, best practice would be to forgo traditional potluck holiday celebrations. For in-person holiday events, designate a person or team to ensure that all COVID-19 local, state and federal guidelines are implemented and  adhered to, including restricting the guests to the allowable number amount of attendees, posting signs to ensure attendees remain 6-feet apart, provide masks for the attendees, provide pre-packaged food for attendees, and ensure the venue has standing hand sanitizers machines, multiple trash cans and tables with the seats placed 6-feet apart. In lieu of an in-person company holiday celebration, consider hosting a virtual event and explore options with a company that specializes in virtual events or plan for engaging and workplace-appropriate activities like company trivia.

No matter what type of holiday event is planned this year, it will require careful consideration and some extra creativity. As always, provide clear communications to employees to manage expectations, and to any vendors who may be involved to reduce the risk of potential liability.