Advice for Old Fezziwig (and You) for the Holiday Party Season

You have to be a true Scrooge not to feel a warm glow when reading about or watching old Fezziwig’s joyous company Christmas party in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”  In the modern workplace, however, kindly old Fezziwig might be sued down to his last sixpence for a variety of indiscretions depicted in the story.

Here is our advice on avoiding a visit by the Ghost of Christmas Past (a lawsuit) for unpaid overtime, discrimination or harassment, and liquor-fueled liability arising out of your holiday festivities.

“Holiday” vs “Christmas” Party

Old Fezziwig’s parties clearly sported a Christmas theme through drink, music and decorations. However, the modern workplace very likely includes persons of various faiths, all of whom should be made to feel welcome on an equal footing.

The debate on whether it is best to say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” is probably best left for other venues.  Throwing a “holiday party” is certainly the best work-related option for avoiding anyone feeling marginalized or excluded.  After all, there are a number of holidays that occur in December so why not celebrate them all?  This way, you avoid the perception that you favor some employees over others simply because of their religious affiliations.

Of course, in for a penny, in for a pound – a truly non-sectarian holiday party requires attention to all of the trappings (e.g. food, decorations, music).  Focus on neutral thematic elements such as winter, snow, presents and family when planning the décor, music, etc.

Voluntary v. Mandatory Attendance

One of the compelling scenes in the story is Fezziwig’s unrelenting effort to persuade young Scrooge to join in the festivities. He simply refuses to take no for an answer.

Forcing an employee to have a good time may have reflected the character’s kindly benevolence but it was unwise from a business perspective. Mandatory attendance at an office function may require the employer to consider the time as “hours worked” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  This means that non-exempt employees would have to be paid and that the time spent at the party would count in determining whether an employee is entitled to overtime for working more than 40 hours in the week.  The same is true for employees who are told they must come early to set up or stay late to clean up.

Mandatory attendance may also contribute to a finding that injuries suffered at the event are covered under workers compensation and that accidents caused by employees having left the party are attributable to the company.

Having announced that attendance is voluntary, be sure not to imply, hint or even joke that employees will “be sorry” if they do not attend. If employees feel coerced into attending, or are made to feel that they will be viewed negatively for skipping the party, attendance may not truly be voluntary.  In addition, do not conduct any work-related activities (e.g. training, announcements, distribution of bonuses) at the party.

Harassment

Despite the number of powerful and wealthy men who have fallen from grace recently due to sexual harassment issues, we do not view Fezziwig in that context. Still, he is often depicted as being a bit of a flirt and a tease, and such behavior can begin to cross some important lines.

Depending upon the venue, the time of day and other connections to work, the office holiday party may be an event where the company sexual harassment policy still applies. Best practices suggest that you should re-publish or remind everyone about the policy and inform them that it remains in force during the gathering.

In addition, be on the lookout for behavior that might violate the policy (get rid of the mistletoe) and deal with it promptly and effectively if it takes place.

If the party includes a gift exchange or Secret Santa activity, tell everyone ahead of time that the gifts must be respectful and appropriate for a business environment. Sexually-oriented gifts must not be exchanged, and people must be sensitive to the impact that will be felt regarding gifts reflecting a particular religious or cultural perspective.

Finally, do not plan games or activities that might devolve into something too personal or sexual, especially in light of how alcohol can loosen inhibitions.  This is not the time to break out Twister or Cards Against Humanity.

Alcohol

Fezziwig apparently loved his ale and the liquor flowed freely during his parties. Be careful at yours:

– Consider limiting the drinks to beer and wine. Serving spirits makes it easier to over imbibe.

– Limit the number of drinks through a ticket system or a cash bar.

– Have plenty of non-alcoholic options available, as well as lots of food.

– Limit the length of the party and include some buffer times when the bar does not serve.

– Have activities, games or other diversions so that drinking is not the primary social activity.

– Consider hiring independent 3rd party bartenders.  They are more experienced in detecting when partiers have had enough and it might help insulate you from liability if an employee hurts someone after the party because they drank too much.

– Have “sober monitors” (individuals who do not drink in case any situations arise) and designated drivers or other transportation available.

Insurance

Review your insurance policy to determine if there is any coverage for these types of events.  If you do not have such coverage, there might be “events coverage” that can be purchased.

Bottom Line

Fezziwig is portrayed as the symbol of a kind and generous employer who chooses to have a positive influence on the lives of those who work for him.  That is of course an admirable goal and a legacy that clearly influenced Scrooge’s eventual transformation.

Bear in mind, however, that if you follow Fezziwig’s example in putting on your holiday party, you may have a Dickens of a time avoiding serious legal consequences.