Do I have to participate in my office Christmas party?

It’s that time of year- office holiday party season.  Some workplaces have events, during or outside of business hours, that they call “holiday parties,” “Christmas parties,” or some other similar seasonal name.  At Gold Star Law, we often get calls from people asking whether they can be forced to participate in such events, to what extent, and what penalty, if any, is allowed for refusal to be involved.  Today we will address the question of whether your employer can require you to be a part of a company holiday party.

There are various reasons people may not want to be involved in an office holiday party.  One of the more common reasons is religious objections.  Employees have a right to be free from religious discrimination in the workplace, and should generally not be forced to go against their own religious beliefs or pressured by other people’s religious preferences.  However, a “holiday party,” “New Year’s party,” or even a “Christmas party” is not necessarily religious in nature. Whether involvement in a holiday party crosses a religious line is a fact-specific inquiry.  How religious is the party?  Is it just about the title?  Are religious songs going to be played? Is there a nativity set? Is there a prayer? If there is a religious component to it, to what extent is that component forced onto employees?  Are they just passive observers or are they expected to actively do religious things?  The more overtly religious a work event is, and the more employees are expected to participate in the religious aspects of it, the more likely it is that the event crosses the line.

Of course, the employee’s own religious situation is also relevant.  If an entire workplace is of the same religion, there is no religious discrimination arising from invoking that religion in the presence of employees who share that same faith.  This is especially true in workplaces that are expected to be religious in nature, such as a church, synagogue, religious private school, or religious nonprofit organization.  Alternatively, if it is known that an employee has religious beliefs that are in conflict with a holiday event, it may be inappropriate and even illegal to force the event upon them.  As an example, Jehovah’s Witnesses may have strong religious and/or moral objections to attending certain holiday parties if there is a clear holiday theme or activity, but may be fine with an annual employee appreciation event.

In addition to the religious aspect, employees may not want to participate in work related seasonal parties for other reasons.  Employees may feel uncomfortable with other aspects of the event, such as alcohol use or even a non-work-appropriate environment.  If you are uncomfortable with any aspect of a company event, it is incumbent upon you to make your discomfort known, and the underlying reason for that discomfort.  Whether your employer has to accommodate your feelings depends on what they are and why.  Employees should not be subjected to hostile work environments based on sex, so if an event is so raunchy that employees are uncomfortable it is not acceptable.  It could also be a violation of state and federal disability laws to make an employee who is a recovering alcoholic endure an environment with excessive alcohol usage.  Employees with disabilities relating to socializing, such as severe anxiety or depression, may even be entitled to accommodations that allow them to skip events where the social component is unbearable for them.  However, if the objection to attending a company event is a mere preference that is not based on anything protected as a matter of law, it is less likely that your preference has to be accommodated.

Finally, some employees do no want to attend company events because of the time commitment.  If a company event is during normal work time, and/or you are being paid for your time spent at the event, the employer can usually require you to attend as long as the event itself is not a problem (for example, if it is overly religious or otherwise inappropriate as described above.)  If the event is outside of working hours and you are not going to be paid for your time, you have the right to not attend.  However, your employer is allowed to take your refusal to participate into consideration (as long as the refusal itself is not protected for a religious or other reason.)  Employers may decide that employees who attend holiday events are “team players” and reward them for it, and may get the impression that you are less invested in the company as an employee.

If you believe that you are the victim of unlawful workplace practices related to workplace holiday events or any other unlawful employment practice, call Gold Star Law for help.