Holiday Cheer and Termination Fear: Can I be fired for my behavior at a work holiday party?

Employment Lawyer Rasha Zeyadeh

Texas Employment Lawyer Rasha Zeyadeh

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Love them or hate them, this is the time of the year during which employers are finalizing holiday party plans. After a long pause on holiday parties due to Covid-19, many employers are gearing up for their first holiday party since the pandemic.  Work holiday parties are a time for employees to get together, socialize, and celebrate a year well done. This is your opportunity to shake hands with the movers and shakers. However, holiday parties are notoriously known to pose serious risks for employees, especially if alcohol is served.

Let’s address the big Texas elephant in the room. Texas is an “at-will” state. That means your employer can fire you for no reason or any reason, short of unlawful discrimination or retaliation. In Texas, termination caused by your actions at a work holiday party is no exception to the “at-will” rule.

Following the holiday season, I typically notice an increase in consultations from employees who were terminated based on their behavior at a holiday party or who were either sexually harassed or discriminated against at a holiday party. A typical misconception is that your behavior and your employer’s behavior at a holiday party is not subject to workplace polices or procedures or employment laws. However, you are still subject to workplace policies and your employer is still subject to labor and employment laws, regardless of whether the party is held at work or off-site.

There is always a heightened risk of injury, sexual harassment, and inappropriate behavior at holiday parties where alcohol is served. A holiday party organized by your employer is a work sanctioned event, regardless of whether it is held at work or off-site. Hence, if you get drunk and act inappropriately, your employer is well within its right to discipline and/or terminate you. Remember, Texas is an “at-will” state. If you make inappropriate jokes, engage in name-calling, or bad mouth your boss at the holiday party and are disciplined or terminated as a result, your employer is within its rights to discipline and/or terminate you.

On the other hand, if you were sexually harassed at a holiday party and you reported the harassment to your employer and either faced retaliation as a result or your employer took no action following your complaint, you could have a sexual harassment and/or retaliation claim against your employer. Similarly, if you faced discrimination at the work holiday party and you reported the discrimination to your employer and either faced retaliation as a result or your employer took no action following your complaint, you could have a discrimination and/or retaliation claim against your employer. Ultimately, employment laws still apply even during work holiday parties. Your employer has an obligation to protect you and your colleagues even at the work holiday party.

Similarly, if your attendance is mandatory at the holiday party, your employer must pay you for the time spent at the party. If you are an hourly employee and your employer fails to pay you for attending a mandatory holiday party, your employer could be in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Additionally, your employer can mandate that you either wear a mask or be vaccinated against Covid-19 to attend the party. Unless you are exempt from vaccination or wearing a mask because of a disability or religion, you are required to comply with the mandate to attend the party.

Approach your work holiday party with caution. If you are subject to harassment, discrimination, or sexual harassment while at your employer’s holiday party, you may have a claim against your employer. To understand your rights and whether you have a legal claim against your employer, give my office a call and schedule a consultation.

Happy holidays!

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