Every year the team at CCPartners provides our readers with tips for navigating the holiday season, and in particular holiday parties, without inviting unwanted liability. If you read last year's blog, you know it was a little different due to this whole Global Pandemic. While things have changed a bit due to vaccination availability and vaccination rates, we are still not "free and clear" of the concerns and considerations of COVID-19. Accordingly, we have revised our list of best practices based on the current situation.

Although in-person holiday parties may appear to be less of an issue this year than last due to the relaxing of "gathering rules" in view of high vaccination rates, we suggest that employers still give some thought as to whether that's best, considering the following factors:

  1. Depending on your own vaccination policy or expectations, you may not have a "fully-vaccinated workforce", or even the ability to verify in the same way that public-facing venues and businesses can with the "vaccine passport";
  2. A large swath of the unvaccinated population are those who cannot get vaccinated – whether immunocompromised or children under 12, the latter of whom are just now getting access to first-dose vaccination;
  3. In certain segments of the vaccinated population, there are concerns about waning immunity and the need for booster shots, access to which is only just opening up; and
  4. Not everyone will necessarily be "raring to go" in terms of gathering en masse again (even if fully vaccinated) and some may feel undue pressure to participate.

If you are an employer planning to host an in-person event, make sure that all appropriate safety measures and COVID-19 protocols are adhered to: just because it is a party does not change the fact that it is a work function and therefore attracts the same obligations and risks with respect to employee safety that you would have on a normal workday. If you have COVID-19 protocols in place in your workplace, they should not be ignored "because it's the holidays".

Likewise, consider this your annual reminder from CCPartners that employers can be liable where their guests – whether or not they are employees – become unruly and engage in any violent or harassing conduct, including sexual harassment, at a holiday party.

If, on the other hand, you have decided against holding an in-person event this year, that's certainly not to say that you can't still ring in the festive season and thank employees for their hard work in the last year.

We at CCPartners have compiled a list of suggested "best practices" to assist your organization in planning and hosting a safe and inclusive "alternative" holiday event in this "second year of COVID":

  1. Hold a virtual event. This is the lowest-risk options for both employers and attendees during the pandemic. Employers can plan out virtual activities for the party such as trivia, recorded messages by senior management, or hiring an entertainer such as a magician or comedian to attend.
  2. Consider whether it is feasible to hold an outdoor event while adhering to all public heath guidelines or bylaws in your region and maintaining physical distancing. If you do hold an in-person event, arrange a virtual alternative for employees who may not be comfortable attending.
  3. Arrange for employees to receive a token of appreciation whether that be food delivered to their home in time for the party, a holiday gift, or even just a holiday card with a personalized message.
  4. Employees should be reminded that even if the party is happening virtually, it is still a workplace function and they are expected to behave in a way that is not harassing, discriminatory, intimidating or otherwise inappropriate, and that your workplace violence and harassment policies apply to the Holiday Party.
  5. Be respectful of the different cultural and belief systems among your employees when planning your event. Make sure the date of your event, your menu and activities reflect your workforce's religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity.
  6. Where your workforce is culturally diverse, consider creating a holiday planning committee of representative employees to plan your event, and plan your event around the many religious holidays being celebrated around this time.
  7. Be mindful of Zoom fatigue and allow employees to opt out of your holiday event without consequence or negative connotation.
  8. If employees express a disinterest in a virtual holiday party, one option for employer is to use their holiday party budget to support a charitable cause in the community. Get employees involved in selecting the organization to make the donation more meaningful.

These tips can help employers ensure that the most wonderful time of the year isn't tarnished by human rights complaints, harassment allegations, or, most importantly, COVID-19. If you have any questions or doubts about your company's planned holiday events, the team at CCPartners can help make sure you stay on Santa's nice list this year! 

Wishing you and your employees a safe and festive Holiday Season.

For even more Holiday Party tips and information, listen to Episode 3 of the Lawyers for Employers podcast on SoundCloud or iTunes.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.