Halloween at work: Don’t get BOOed by your employees!

October 30, 2017 - by: Angela Cummings 0 COMMENTS
Angela Cummings

Halloween can be such a fun holiday for kids of all ages. When October 31st falls on a weekday, as it does this year, ghoulish fun will certainly creep its way into the workplace. How can you, as a human resources professional, ensure that the day is more fun than it is scary? Simple. Just follow a few rules.Halloween theme 3

1: Make any Halloween office festivities totally voluntary

As you know, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees from religious discrimination in the workplace. Even though most people would consider Halloween in 2017 to be largely a secular holiday, it does have religious roots. Be considerate of employees who do not wish to participate in dressing up in costumes or attending Halloween-themed workplace parties. The employee may have a religious reason for not wanting to observe Halloween, and the employee has no obligation to notify the company of his or her rationale for not wanting to participate. Keeping the festivities 100% optional will help prevent any such issues. (As an aside, keep in mind that one or more of your employees may request, as a religious accommodation, to miss work that day, as it is a recognized Wiccan holiday.)

2: Ensure that any Halloween costumes are appropriate for the workplace

As Lili Reinhart recently found out, not all Halloween costumes are created equally. The actress, who stars on the “Riverdale” series (on the CW), tweeted a picture of her planned Halloween costume, which was an all-black demon. The backlash on social media was swift and unequivocal, as the costume appeared to include blackface. Reinhart apologized immediately, stating that she could “see how it was interpreted as being insensitive, completely.”

Other celebrities have also caused debate in recent years, including singer Chris Brown who dressed up as a Taliban member, and Prince Harry, who dressed up as a member of the Nazi party. Such costumes, of course, in the workplace could lead to claims for unlawful harassment. Simply put, be sure that employees understand that all costumes must be workplace appropriate and that the costumes do not stereotype any religion, national origin, gender or race in a negative light.

In addition, employees should be reminded that any costumes should not be too revealing or provocative, and should not contain any type of weapon as an accessory. Finally, costumes should be safe: if the employee works in a job around heavy machinery or where chemicals from a costume could become flammable, then the safety risks outweigh the benefit of fun, and the employer should not allow the costume. When in doubt, ask the employee to go home and change.

3: Be mindful of the professional setting if you plan to allow children to visit the workplace on Halloween

Many employers allow the children of employees, and sometimes even children of customers and suppliers, to visit the workplace after school hours on Halloween and trick-or-treat down the hallways. Although such events can be morale-building and lead to employee bonding, they can also present unintended problems. As a practical matter, be sure that you have communicated this event to all employees and remind them several times prior to the day, so that large or important meetings are scheduled at other times. As cute as the kids in costume are, you do not want to frustrate an important customer or client who needs to be in your offices that afternoon for an important meeting.

Further, if a nonexempt employee needs to leave work to pick up his or her children to attend the event, be sure that you have communicated to the employee whether he or she must use PTO time for this voluntary activity, whether it will be allowed while on-the-clock, etc. Communication prior to the event is important.

With the above in mind, you can ensure that any Halloween-related festivities at your workplace are safe and fun (and uneventful from a human resources perspective!).

Solar eclipse guide for employers

August 21, 2017 - by: Kristin Starnes Gray 0 COMMENTS
Kristin Starnes Gray

Today’s solar eclipse is expected to be an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with people from all over flocking to the path of totality.  While this will likely mean considerable economic benefits from tourism, it is also expected to be quite costly for employers.  According to an estimate by outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, this afternoon’s celestial show will cost employers a staggering $694 million due to reduced productivity.  Employers in the path of totality are expected to be hit especially hard.

With the eclipse happening on a regular work day and with schools closing in anticipation of the event, employers can expect an unusually high number of employee absences today.  For those employees showing up as scheduled, Solar eclipseemployers can still expect a dip in productivity while the eclipse is happening.  There is a silver lining, as the eclipse gives employers the opportunity for team-building and morale boosting events in celebration.  Here are a few employers tips for today’s eclipse:

1.  Consider embracing today’s event and having a voluntary eclipse viewing party for employees.

2.  Remind employees to use proper safety eyewear for viewing the eclipse at any employer function.

3.  Remind employees to be cautious about any viewing glasses they purchased on their own, given the number of scams reported.  If the glasses are employer-provided, ensure they are properly certified.

4.  For those employers with employees outdoors for work or work-sponsored events, consider any necessary safety precautions to prevent accidents caused by the reduction in light during totality, distraction, etc.

5.  Consult your legal counsel and insurance providers about on any potential liability for injuries during employer-sponsored eclipse activities.

In a few short hours, we can expect the skies to darken, the stars to twinkle, the animals to go into their nighttime routines, and a record number of camera snaps.  Whatever your plans today, we wish you a safe and happy solar eclipse experience.

Office Christmas Party–strategies to avoid the legal fallout

November 10, 2016 - by: Robin Kallor 0 COMMENTS
Robin Kallor

You may be wondering why I selected to write about a movie that is not yet in the theaters.  Truthfully, I do not need to see the movie to write about its relevance to HR issues. In fact, all that’s necessary is to read the title—Office Christmas Party.

Yes, we are in Human Resources. What that means is that when others look forward to getting dressed up and celebrating year-end with their colleagues in a laid-back social setting for which the company often spares no expense, we HR professionals get stomachaches in anticipation of the event. When others spend time at the party kicking back and enjoying a couple of cocktails at the five-hour open bar, we spend our time in a corner covering our eyes or doing damage control. While others need the next day off to nurse a nasty hangover, we HR professionals are “up and at ’em”—again doing damage control. We are the stiffs, the Grinches, the Scrooges. Even during the planning stages, the more fun the party sounds, the louder the screeches in our brain become.

Understand why we are like this. This is not a “chicken or the egg” situation, and we were not born this way. We are this way—complete buzzkills—because NO GOOD COMES FROM A LOT OF ALCOHOL AT WORK-Sdrunk businessman drinking champagne wearing xmas santa hatPONSORED EVENTS. It sounds fun, but we all have to go to work the next day, and what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas. Ever. In fact, there is a nonstop flight from Vegas over to the water cooler or the Keurig.

Keeping with that mantra, here are some handy tips to keep in mind when planning your next holiday party:

  1. Send an e-mail or memo reminder to employees before the holiday party. While I can see employees’ eyes rolling, it’s always prudent to send out a memo or e-mail to employees before the party reminding them to limit alcohol consumption and to dress appropriately. The reminder should also reiterate that employees are expected to adhere to the company’s antiharassment rules.
  2. Limit alcohol served. As stated above, nothing good comes from too much alcohol at work functions. Therefore, consider having the bar open for a limited period of time at the beginning of the event as opposed to the entire party. Additionally, consider handing out a limited number of drink tickets per guest.
  3. Make arrangements with a local taxi company for return rides. To reduce risks associated with driving under the influence, the company should make arrangements with a local taxi company to provide employees who have consumed too much alcohol with return rides home. This will avoid giving employees control over the decision at a time when they are tired and unwilling to make their own arrangements.

Consider other alternatives to the “all-out” holiday party—possibly a nice luncheon during the workday without alcohol, a family-friendly weekend afternoon gathering, or some sort of group activity.

In sum, I don’t feel the need to see the movie; just reading the title sends my blood pressure rising.

Employers haunted by Halloween

October 31, 2016 - by: Katie O'Shea 0 COMMENTS
Katie O'Shea

Happy Halloween! We hope you are getting only treats today and no tricks. But in keeping with the holiday spirit, today’s post highlights some unintended tricks employers may face from Halloween.    Pug dog with Halloween costume sleep on sofa

Many employers will have already hosted a Halloween office party or allowed employees to dress up today to celebrate, but the Halloween festivities, whether work-sponsored or not, can continue to haunt employers long after today. Below are several examples of problems employers encountered because of Halloween activities:

  • Last year, a college president sparked outrage after a photograph circulated on social media of him and other university staffer members at a Halloween party wearing brightly colored ponchos, sombreros, bushy mustaches, and holding maracas. Understandably, many people considered the costume offensive, resulting in a formal apology and a meeting with the university’s Office of Hispanic and Latino Initiatives.
  • Another incident last year involved two professors at another university, one of whom ultimately resigned following the incident. One of the professors wrote an e-mail in response to a request from a campus group that students avoid wearing insensitive costumes, saying that students should be allowed to wear any costume they wanted. The e-mail and other incidents at the school prompted hundreds of students and faculty to protest over perceived racial insensitivity.  The professor’s husband supported his wife’s e-mail and decided to take a sabbatical in the spring semester following the incident.
  • Our blog post last year highlighted several cases that arose from Halloween activities, including a case where an employee’s supervisor made an inappropriate comment about the employee’s fishnet stockings, a case where an employee’s provocative costume was offered by the defense in a sexual harassment case, a case where the plaintiff dressed as a cat, prompting a manager to comment that he wanted “that p***y,” and a case where a white office worker came to a party dressed in blackface.

Because Halloween falls on a Monday this year, many people celebrated over the weekend, and pictures of costumes and events are flooding social media. More pictures and costumes will follow after celebrations this evening. In addition to setting expectations for appropriate costumes to wear in the workplace, employers must be vigilant for problems that can result from employees’ costumes outside of work as well.  Employers should remind their employees that any harassing comments or gossip are inappropriate for the workplace and that engaging in such conduct can result in discipline.  Remembering these incidents and taking immediate action if any inappropriate behavior occurs will make Halloween and the weeks that follow a lot less scary.

Go Scrooge yourself: 5 biz holiday party tips

December 07, 2015 - by: Ed Carlstedt 0 COMMENTS
Ed Carlstedt

‘Tis the season for your company’s annual holiday party. And while the notion of drinking, eating and generally enjoying merriment with your coworkers, subordinates, and superiors may seem innocuous, it is anything but. What seems like a festive occasion during the most wonderful time of the year is, if sledded incorrectly, a mine field of potential employment law mishaps. And while I don’t mean to be a Scrooge, this week’s lesson comes from a scene in one of my favorite holiday classics, the movie Scrooged with Bill Murray. What can we learn from this seasonal, cinematic favorite? Well, you can learn that, for purposes of the company holiday party, you should consider “Scrooge-ing” yourself. office holiday party

In the movie, Bill Murray’s character, Frank Cross (the modern day Scrooge), is visited by three ghosts, several of whom transport him back in time to certain life events that froze his heart and led to his hatred for Christmas. During one of his time-traveling trips, Frank visits his office during a wild late-1960s holiday party. People are seen drinking heavily, dancing, flirting with coworkers, and dressing inappropriately, and one woman, Tina (who is wearing a rather skimpy Santa’s helper outfit) is even handing out photocopies of her derriere.

As the coworkers are partying with reckless impunity, Frank passes through the party while completing his work tasks. Frank is wearing his work attire and isn’t drinking. The boss asks Frank to note the ongoing party and implies that he should join. Frank politely declines and advises his boss that he has several projects that he needs to complete. Tina then approaches Frank, hands him a copy of her “resume,” and appears particularly enthused to see Frank. Frank essentially brushes her off and goes about his work. The merry office party, like the little drummer boy, marches on.

So what lessons can we learn from this scene? For purposes of the company holiday party, go Scrooge yourself, at least a little bit. Here are my top five tips for conducting yourself appropriately at the company holiday party, regardless of whether you are the CEO or the most recently hired file clerk.

  1. Dress appropriately. A company holiday party is still a work event. It’s not a Vegas nightclub. Stay away from clothes that will draw a lot of attention to you and provide fodder for your coworkers. If you look in the mirror and question whether your outfit is inappropriate, it probably is. Go change and put on something more appropriate.
  2. Don’t flirt with coworkers (again, it’s not a Vegas nightclub) or engage in other inappropriate conversations such as office gossip, politics, religion, etc. If this effectively eliminates 95 percent of your conversation, you should consider skipping the holiday party and reading some books and newspapers to broaden your conversation base.
  3. Don’t drink excessively (see Vegas nightclub reference here). Know your tolerance and drink in a manner that will permit you to maintain your professionalism. You don’t have to go full Frank Cross, but drink in moderation. If you drink, consider calling Uber or taking a cab home.
  4. Don’t stay until the wee hours of the night (save that for the Vegas nightclub). If history and college tell us anything, it’s that very bad things can happen late at night, especially when people drink. Plan to leave before the scheduled end of the party and stick to that plan. If you feel yourself getting drunk, regardless of the time, arrange for an Uber or a cab and go home immediately.
  5. Don’t assume everyone celebrates a particular holiday (no applicable Vegas nightclub reference). Many holidays are celebrated during December including Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, Christmas, Festivus (see my earlier blog referencing Seinfeld), etc. Be sensitive to the fact that we’re a diverse country with diverse holidays and rituals.

Moral of the story: When it comes to the holiday office party, Scrooge yourself a little bit. In other words, do the exact opposite of what you would do in a Vegas nightclub. Happy holidays!

Tricks and treats and trial briefs

October 26, 2015 - by: Brian Kurtz 0 COMMENTS
Brian Kurtz

Remember NBC’s The Office? I think some lawyers used to blog about it. Anyhow, one of my favorite episodes was “Costume Contest” where the Scranton employees threw a Halloween party at the branch office. The costumes in the episode were mostly tame, ranging from Justin Bieber (Ryan) to Lady Gaga (Gabe). Late in the episode Angela dressed up as “sexy nurse.” The employment lawyer in me was not amused.  Devils Not in Disguise

Halloween is a few days away, and many employers will be holding costume-themed events. Unless HR steps in with some firm rules about costumes and conduct, some of those parties will invariably end up as reported Title VII cases. Consider just a few examples:

  • In a 2009 New York case, the plaintiff, dressed as a punk schoolgirl, was asked by her supervisor whether her fishnet stockings were waist-high or thigh-high;
  • In a 2009 Massachusetts case, photographic evidence of the provocative costumes the plaintiff wore to Halloween parties was offered by the defense in her sexual harassment case;
  • In a 2006 Louisiana case, the plaintiff dressed like a cat, prompting her manager to comment that he wanted “that p***y”;
  • In a 1995 Eighth Circuit decision, a white officer came to the party dressed in blackface, wearing overalls and a black curly wig, and carrying a watermelon.

Don’t let this be your workplace. Take steps before the party to diminish the risk of liability. Prohibit or limit alcohol. Do not allow provocative costumes. If the party takes place at the workplace, have it end at a reasonable hour. Remind employees about the company’s harassment and discrimination policies. Nothing is scarier than being sworn in for your deposition. Happy Halloween, everyone.

Elf: one too many Christmas spirits

December 19, 2014 - by: Kristin Starnes Gray 1 COMMENTS
Kristin Starnes Gray

With Christmas just around the corner, my family and I have begun our yearly ritual of re-watching our favorite holiday films. At the top of the list is a relatively newer addition, Elf.  The comedy stars Will Ferrell as Buddy, a human who crawls into Santa’s sack and ends up being raised by Papa Elf at the North Pole. After learning that he is actually human rather than an elf, Buddy decides to travel to New York to find his biological father, who works at a children’s book company and happens to be on the Naughty List. Much of the film’s comedy and charm comes from Buddy’s child-like innocence and genuine holiday cheer as he tries to navigate the cynical world of New York City. shutterstock_236981068At his father’s office, this same innocence leads Buddy to mistake a mail room worker’s whiskey for delicious maple syrup. As you can imagine, a six-foot tall elf can cause quite a ruckus in the workplace after having too many spirits.

Employers are well aware that illicit drug use and alcohol abuse can be costly in the workplace. Drug-free workplace programs can be powerful tools in spreading prevention messages and intervening early with those who have already begun to use drugs. For many individuals, especially those who may deny that their use of drugs is problematic, workplace-based programs can be a critical step along the road to treatment and recovery. Every workplace is different, and drug-free workplace programs should be tailored to match a company’s individual needs. Here are some general recommendations for such programs:

  • Have a written drug-free workplace policy explaining why the policy was enacted and providing a clear description of prohibited behaviors as well as an explanation of the consequences for violating the policy.
  • Train supervisors to understand the policy and recognize employees with performance issues that may be related to substance abuse.  Training also should explain how to refer employees for professional help.
  • Implement employee education programs providing information on the policy, how to comply with the policy, the consequences for violations, and general information about the dangers of substance abuse.
  • Have an employee assistance program to help prevent, identify, and resolve issues relating to substance abuse.
  • Implement drug testing to deter and detect drug use and to provide concrete evidence for intervention.

Luckily for Buddy, he manages to escape his inadvertent workplace drunkenness relatively unscathed and is free to return to his true vice–sugar, sugar, and more sugar. Feel free to share your holiday traditions, cautionary tales of workplace spirits, and also your thoughts on the new animated Elf special starring another one of my favorites, the talented Jim Parsons. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to our readers.

 

Halloween tips to avoid a total nightmare

October 27, 2014 - by: Josh Sudbury 2 COMMENTS
Josh Sudbury

It’s that time of year again. Time for Halloween and all the candy, cheesy ghost stories, and inappropriate costumes that come with it. While Halloween can be fun and exciting, the fallout for employers can be all fright.

Office Parties. While workplace costume parties can lighten the mood in the office, employers should be proactive in dealing with the potential issues that can arise.

shutterstock_157867430First and foremost, employers should communicate simple and clear rules or guidelines to their employees in advance of any party. Employees should be reminded that professionalism is still expected of them at work, both in their conduct and their costumes. This is especially important if your employees will interact with customers during the workday, as an offensive or inappropriate costume could cause more than just internal employee relations issues. Employers should give their employees examples of what is potentially inappropriate, so that there is no guesswork involved for the employee.

Inappropriate costumes can include those costumes that reveal too much skin or, depending the type of workplace you operate, those that have the potential to compromise safety. This category can also include costumes that touch on hot-button political or social topics, such as an employee lampooning a high-profile political figure or dressing as a nun or priest. While some employees may be unaffected by these costumes, employers must be sensitive to how all their employees may deal with the notions raised by such costumes. read more…