‘Tis the Season for Employers to Review Their Employee Handbooks

With the holiday season fast approaching, employers must plan and prepare for the general revelry that accompanies this time of year. Holiday parties, which often involve the consumption of alcohol and frequently occur outside of the physical workplace, present distinct risks for employers. To maintain a safe, respectful, and healthy work environment, employers should consider reviewing a variety of policies and practices contained in their employee handbooks as well as employee policies that may be implicated by holiday-related events. Reviewing the policies and employment practices outlined below may help employers keep their workplaces holly and jolly through the new year.

Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Policy

In addition to reviewing anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies for compliance with requirements under applicable federal, state, and local laws, employers should ensure that their policies make clear that unlawful discrimination and harassment is prohibited in the workplace, at work-related functions, and outside of work if it affects the workplace. Any training related to discrimination and harassment provided for employees and department heads or other managers should also clearly breakdown where such conduct is prohibited and who can engage in the prohibited conduct.

When at employer-sponsored events, employees may feel that they can let their guard down when outside of the physical workplace and are more likely to engage in conduct that is otherwise inappropriate or unlawful. Offsite holiday parties are particularly susceptible to this form of misconduct because they often involve activities, like drinking alcohol, playing games, and/or dancing, during which there might be decreased inhibitions and closer contact among co-workers.

By expressly including references to such work-related functions and outside work events in anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, employers prevent potentially problematic behaviors from going unreported merely because employees believe they fall outside the scope of relevant employer-policies and procedures. Catching such conduct in settings outside of the workplace early can also allow employers to correct or remediate problematic behavior as appropriate, based on the substance of any complaints received and investigations conducted, before it physically enters the workplace or becomes more serious or pervasive.

Workplace Romance Policies

Holiday parties and offsite work-sponsored events also have the potential to lead to workplace romances. To address romantic relationships before they arise, employers can craft either a policy on romantic relationships or reference romantic relationships in an existing “conflicts of interest policy” in their employee handbooks.

Workplace romances have the potential to lead to discrimination, harassment, or retaliation claims, particularly if a relationship ends badly or when they implicate complicated power-dynamics in supervisor/supervisee situations. For instance, an employee may claim that they were targeted after ending a relationship with a co-worker or supervisor. Such relationships may also lead to claims of favoritism or actual or perceived conflicts of interest if between supervisors and subordinates, which can harm employee morale and implicate other conflict policies. Accordingly, employers want to make clear their stance on these relationships to all employees at the outset of their employment through a formal written policy.

In a workplace relationship policy, employers may consider strongly advising against romantic relationships among co-workers and/or prohibiting romantic relationships between individuals in the same department or in a direct reporting structure. Such policies may also require one or both employees to disclose the relationship to a member of Human Resources or other appropriate personnel and may incorporate having the employees sign a statement acknowledging the relationship. For example, placing an explicit duty to report in writing on the more senior member of the relationship may assist with assuring that a report will actually be made and the relationship is handled appropriately.

Finally, within the actual policy, employers will want to reserve their right to take appropriate actions in response to any romantic relationship reported, especially if such relationship creates the appearance of or gives rise to an actual conflict of interest. Responsive actions may include the reassignment of one or both employees or termination of the employees, depending on the policy adopted and the circumstances at issue.

Though effectively handling workplace romances can be tricky to navigate, specifying how they will be addressed, including the extent to which they may be discouraged or prohibited and whether they are required to be disclosed, can make the situation unfold much more smoothly. However, while it is important for employers to develop written policies on romantic relationships, it is even more pivotal to ensure that such policies are administered consistently any time a relationship arises. If an employer fails to follow its own policy, this may subject the employer to a claim of discrimination, harassment, or retaliation.

Drug and Alcohol Use Policies

As referenced above, many holiday parties and other events around the holiday season involve the consumption of alcohol. While employers may not want to prohibit outright such consumption, they should ensure that they prohibit inappropriate conduct and are insulated in the event that an employee overindulges whilst celebrating.

Employers can accomplish this objective by crafting a drug and alcohol workplace policy that generally prohibits bringing on to their premises, having possession of, being under the influence of, using, consuming, etc., any form of alcohol during working hours, whether or not physically at the worksite. Yet, employers can include a carve-out that alcohol may be permitted in moderation for authorized social activities or events. The key is to make clear that only limited consumption is appropriate for a work setting.

Employers may also reiterate their stance on drug and alcohol use, including appropriate use during a sanctioned event, in any code of conduct. One or both policies can help ensure that employees understand that outrageous or inappropriate consumption of alcohol will not be tolerated, even in the name of “good fun” or the holiday spirit.

Our team of SME’s is always available to assist you with this, or any other HR related issues you may face in the workplace.

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