November 20, 2015

As the holidays approach, it is especially important to pay extra attention to human resource issues.


As you are all probably aware of, most employees make vacation/paid time off (PTO) requests this time of year.  It is recommended to have a “standardized” system to approach vacation and PTO, especially during the holidays.  First, let employees know how vacation or PTO time is allotted (i.e., first come, first serve; awarded pursuant to seniority status; or random lottery).  Another approach is to give a deadline for submission of vacation requests. Depending on your stated policy, encouraging employees to work together to figure out holiday coverage is another approach which can create positive solutions to difficult problems.  If too many people want the same days off, ask the employees to collaborate on a holiday schedule.  If employees are unable to come up with a workable schedule, design a schedule that shares the holiday work hours as much as possible to promote a feeling of fairness and balance.  In sum, vacation/PTO requests issues are inevitable, but clear communication and approaching the issues early are bound to lead to better end results for all.

After-Hours Holiday Events

It is important to consider from a wages standpoint if an after-hours holiday event or activity is voluntary or not for employees.  If the event is not voluntary, it is important to make sure you pay attention to the Department of Labor’s (DOL) definition of compensable time.  If attendance is mandatory at an after-hours holiday function, then the employees that attend must be paid.   For non-exempt employees that work more than 40 hours that week, including time spent at the mandatory event, this will likely mean these employees earn overtime pay.  

If the event is voluntary, make sure you let employees know in advance of the voluntary nature of the event.  For example, when planning an unpaid, extra event outside of work for employees, include a line such as, “we hope that you will join us, but attendance is not mandatory.”  Additionally, you also want to be clear that the only incentive for employees to attend is a social incentive.  For instance, you do not want to do something like hand out bonus checks at a “voluntary” extracurricular activity.  In sum, the easiest and “safest” solution is to make any after-hours holiday function a voluntary and social event.

Be Wary of Religious Discrimination Issues Around the Holidays

As you are likely most all aware of, companies cannot treat employees of different religions differently.  However, this can get especially tricky around the holidays. One potential area of difficulty is holiday decorations.

While the EEOC and courts take the position that certain holiday decorations are secular in nature (i.e., wreaths, Christmas trees, and Santa Clause), and that employers do not have to put up decorations associated with other religions, the EEOC also says that if an employee objects to particular mandatory holiday customs or practices on religious grounds in the office, the employer may have to offer a reasonable accommodation to the objecting employee.  Of course, the employee must have a sincerely held religious belief before a duty to accommodate would be triggered, and the requested accommodation must be reasonable and not cause the employer undue hardship.

Also be aware of potential religious discrimination issues when planning any company holiday party or social event.  Important considerations include time/date of the holiday party or social event (i.e., does the party or event interfere with religious practices or services like Christmas Eve service), think about food and drink offerings at the holiday party or social function (i.e., be aware of religious restrictions on certain foods/drinks such as pork, non-Kosher foods and alcoholic beverages), and activities at the party or function (i.e., religious readings, a religious play or a meal blessing/prayer). 

Since the thought behind employer-sponsored holiday parties and social events is usually to foster a sense of togetherness and boost the morale of the staff, it would seem wise that if your workforce has a number of different religions, you should find a way to incorporate the symbolism of each in small ways.  Or, alternatively, and likely preferable, reduce the references to each so as not to put religion as the central focus of the gathering.  After all, you want as many employees to attend and enjoy the get together as possible.


  • Clearly communicate in detail vacation/PTO policies well in advance of the holidays
  • Make after-hours holiday parties or social events voluntary
  • Be aware of potential religious discrimination issues related to holiday decorations and employer-sponsored holiday parties or social events


Please contact a Gjording Fouser lawyer at 208.336.9777 if you would like any additional information about this topic or any other employment issues facing your company.