To Host or Not to Host a Company Holiday Party This Year?

Dec. 8, 2021, 9:00 AM

As vaccination rates slowly rise and the world ekes towards a return to normalcy, employers face seemingly unending questions about how to best operate in the time of Covid-19 and all its mutational glory. The latest discovery of the omicron variant alone has employers again rushing to reevaluate their workplace Covid-safety policies.

Having already faced down burning questions such as: how often to sanitize, whether to require masks, who is actually a close contact to contact trace, are boosters necessary to be considered “fully vaccinated,” especially with new variants popping up across the globe, and what do to about anti-vax employees, employers are wrestling with the next imminent Covid-19 question on the horizon: “How dangerous is the omicron variant, actually?” No. The question on all employers’ minds is: “What should we do about the company holiday party?”

The good news is holiday celebrations don’t have to be canceled. Employers are finding creative and safe ways to spread some holiday cheer, while hopefully not spreading some holiday germs, among their employees.

Skip the Online Parties

Online meetings arguably reached their highest and best form when a lawyer famously told a judge, lawyer famously told a judge, “I’m not a cat” or a woman accidentally turned herself into a potato. Since nothing can top those early pandemic viral moments, or perhaps since people are tired of staring at screens, employees no longer want to appear on Zoom unless necessary.

“You know what always puts me in the holiday spirit? After a day of working in our sweatpants, let’s all throw on a jazzy shirt, meet on Zoom from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. to watch each other nurse a beer and awkwardly try not to speak over each other while comparing notes about which Netflix series we last binge watched!” said no one, ever.

Companies take note: skip the online holiday parties this year. One season of that sad facsimile of a party was enough for everyone.

In-Person Risks

Here’s a riddle: How do you drink enough cocktails to help you make it through socializing with your close-talker boss, while either (a) wearing a mask or (b) maintaining safe and appropriate social distance? (cue Jeopardy music).

Answer: You don’t. It’s arguably near impossible to attend an indoor cocktail-style party with eating and drinking, and at the same time follow current CDC guidance of either wearing a mask or maintaining social distance.

This is particularly true if the workforce is not 100% vaccinated. Although everyone is eager to get back to the in-person gatherings of yesteryear, it may not be the wisest choice.

If you can’t have your party in a well ventilated/outdoor space, consider alternative party ideas where the company Covid-19 policy that applies during the workday vis-a-vis masks and social distancing also applies during the party.

Remember: This isn’t your cousin’s wedding with the non-refundable deposit so everyone has to make an appearance or risk upsetting the bride. This is a company-sponsored event and different considerations (like a variety of potential liabilities) apply.

Best 2021 Alternatives

No one, not even your resident lawyer (yours truly), wants to be the Grinch who puts the kibosh on holiday celebrations. Fear not; there are still some good ways to gather with colleagues or recognize your employees’ hard work, and that maintain appropriate Covid-19 safety protocols while still being fun, generous, and meaningful.

Here are a few ideas of ways that some employers may choose to ring in the holidays this season:

  • Consider an activity where employees can participate while socially distanced and/or masked. Popular ideas include group painting classes, axe throwing, museum tours, ice skating, or even bowling.
  • Do something fun together outside of the workplace that does not center around eating, and hence will not require removing masks.
  • Do something outdoors, like sign up for a company-sponsored walk/run 5K or local walking tour. You can even have matching tee shirts made.
  • Participate in company-sponsored charity event, such as volunteering as a group in a food pantry or an animal shelter, or packing holiday meals for those in need.
  • Take the money you would have spent per head on the holiday party and allow employees to donate it to a charity of their choosing (from a pre-selected, non-controversial list).
  • Give employees a takeout food gift card in the amount you would have spent per head on the holiday party, and invite employees to treat their families or friends to a night of takeout dinner.
  • Use the money you would have spent per head on the holiday party to send each employee a gourmet food basket at home.
  • Have each supervisor take out his or her team for a holiday lunch. Multiple smaller gatherings at seated tables arguably carry less risk than a company-wide cocktail party.
  • If you must do a Zoom party, invite employees to order a nice dinner and wine to enjoy during the call, and allow them to seek reimbursement for the amount you would have spent per head on the holiday party. Have an activity planned for the call, such as trivia.

In any event, make sure to communicate to employees that any holiday party in any form is entirely voluntary, and that company policies and expectations regarding appropriate and professional conduct will be maintained. It’s never a bad idea to run your plans by your friendly employment lawyer, just to make sure.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Jill Cohen is a Princeton, N.J.-based attorney with Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC and divides her practice between complex commercial litigation and employment litigation.

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