Parties, time with friends and family, gift-giving and delicious food make the holiday season the most wonderful time of the year. Is continuing the merriment in the workplace — without getting the company into legal trouble — too much to wish for? The elation of the holidays can set unsuspecting employers up for issues that feel like getting a stocking full of coal, so below are tips restaurants can follow to avoid employment-related liability this holiday season. 

Respect time-off requests for religious observances

Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa are among the spiritually significant days employees may recognize in December. Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (and various state and local laws), employers may not discriminate on the basis of an employee's religion. To avoid potential liability, you may need to allow employees time off for religious observances if they request it.

But what if granting the employee's request disrupts your workplace? If you can demonstrate that providing a reasonable accommodation to an employee's request would cause undue hardship to your business, you may have an exception to the Title VII requirements. However, note that under the law, it is very difficult for employers to establish that granting a single request from an employee for time off is adequately disruptive. Though it may be difficult for your business, schedule changes and shift substitutions typically do not constitute an undue hardship.

Also, beware how you treat any employee who makes a request for religious accommodation. You want to avoid any implication of unfair treatment that may be viewed as retaliation for making the request. 

Manage holiday pay 
For the restaurant industry, more than the usual number of people eating out or holding holiday events at restaurants may require employees to work more hours than is typical. Though many employers give employees some holidays off, this can be difficult for restaurant industry employers who are open (and in high demand) during the holidays. Must you provide paid holidays even when employees do not work? If your employees have to work holidays, do you have to pay them a premium rate? Must you allow employees time off for the holidays?

The answer to all of these questions is no. Federal law does not require employers to pay employees for hours an employee does not work. It also doesn't mandate that they observe any specific holiday unless they have promised in writing to do so. Employers are free to schedule employees to work on holidays. If your business does grant holiday time off to employees, you are not required by law to pay employees for that time, though many restaurants do choose to do this. 

If you provide holiday pay, apply the rules consistently to all employees to avoid any of them claiming that they're being discriminated against or treated differently than other employees. 

Keep holiday parties in check
Then there are holiday parties. These time-honored traditions allow employers to show appreciation to their hardworking, loyal employees. These festivities, however, often fueled by alcohol, can also be a breeding ground for poor choices, bad behavior and even legal complications. 

Here is a holiday party Top 10 list that can greatly reduce an organization's legal liability:

  1. Don't serve alcohol. Consider hosting a breakfast or lunch event, where employees would be less likely to expect alcohol to be served. 
  2. If you choose to serve alcohol, serve food and offer plenty of non-alcoholic beverage options. 
  3. Invite spouses and significant others. The presence of a significant other generally reduces the likelihood of an employee behaving badly. It also gives management another individual who's invested in making sure the employee gets home safely.
  4. If you host an evening event, consider serving only beer or wine (plus non-alcoholic alternatives), along with a meal. 
  5. If you serve alcohol, offer a cash bar or use a ticket system to encourage employees to limit the amount they drink. Close the bar at least one hour before the party's ending time. Switch to coffee and soft drinks from there on.
  6. Notify managers that they are "on duty" at the party. Instruct them to keep an eye on their subordinates to ensure they do not drink too much or engage in other inappropriate behaviors. Managers must not attend any "post-party" parties. 
  7. Remind employees that, while you encourage everyone to have a good time, your business' normal workplace standards will be in force at the party, and misconduct at or after the party can result in disciplinary action. 
  8. Hire professional bartenders and confirm that they will adhere to certain standards, including requiring positive identification from guests who do not appear to be substantially over the age of 21 and reporting anyone who appears to be inebriated.
  9. Pay for taxi service (or Uber/Lyft) for any employee who feels that he or she should not drive home. At management's discretion, be prepared to provide hotel rooms for intoxicated employees. 
  10. Mistletoe should never make an appearance at a holiday party. 

It's great to recognize the holidays with employees. It enhances morale, builds your culture and acknowledges employees' contributions to the company's successes during the year. Just beware of potential issues that may arise this month, and follow these guidelines to avoid the gift you have no desire to receive — an employment-related lawsuit!

Previously published in Fast Casual.

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.