It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, except for Employers

Oh wait, isn’t the title of this week’s post the way that song goes? I suppose it’s not, but it could be.

Ah, the holidays. Yes, all of them, not just Christmas, Channukah & Kwanza – all of them. Nothing brings out good will towards all in some and the worst behaviour ever in others. As unpleasant as some family members can be during holiday meals, it is more than just “annoying” when it enters the workplace: it’s a problem that can lead to liability and needs to be addressed before it occurs.

The Ontario Human Rights code prohibits harassment and discrimination in the workplace on the basis of religion and creed. Offend the wrong person in your office and you could be looking at a Human Rights Complaint – not much jolliness in that. So, how do you avoid that particular land mine? First, ensure your business has a workplace anti-discrimination and harassment policy. Second, actually enforce it.

This does not mean you ban saying Merry Christmas in the workplace. It does mean that you don’t force employees who don’t want to participate, into participating in Christmas themed events. In our office, for example, we are made up of many faiths and creeds. Everyone is respectful of everyone else’s festivities and when we get together towards the end of December to celebrate the holiday season, we won’t be celebrating Christmas as that would leave many people out, we’ll be celebrating all holidays. We talk about our holidays, we share our traditions (and best of all, we share our traditional foods) and we have fun. Imagine that: a holiday celebration that is fun – it can happen !

However, one of the other minefields for employers this time of year is too much fun, particularly when alcohol is involved. Holiday parties without spouses and with alcohol are a good way to test your sexual harassment policy and really, who want to do that? Lunch time events tend to have less drinking and as such, less potential liability. As Martha Stewart would say “it’s a good thing”.

All of the above is not to take the ho ho ho out of the holidays. It’s just to remind employers that if you don’t want the gift of spending quality time with your lawyers for most of next year, you’re going to want to think about what was written here.

Happy Festivus !

Inga B. Andriessen JD