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Feds’ guide on holiday ideas to keep under wraps

- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 16, 2012

The phrase "Merry Christmas, BB" on a holiday greeting card once got a federal supervisor relieved of his duties. "BB" stood for "Big Butt," and the rest is hostile-workplace history.

So cautions a new "Federal Employees' Guide to the Holidays" published by Tully Rinckey, a law firm specializing in discrimination, employment issues and military law, located just a few blocks north of the White House.

"The end of the year is not the time federal employment standards go on holiday. Federal employees put their jobs at risk if they believe the forgiving nature of the holiday spirit will save them from an agency issuing disciplinary or adverse actions," said Joanna Friedman, a partner at the firm who practices federal employment law.

It's a sensitive thing, indeed. Complicated, too.

Avoid humorous or crude holiday greetings to co-workers or subordinates, or risk landing in "BB territory," the guide advises. Gifts are often fraught with peril.

Give no gifts to supervisors that cost more than $10, and for co-workers, it's $20. Don't buy more than $50 worth of gifts from the same source. Do not accept gifts from "prohibited sources" who might be looking for a return business favor from the agency.

To the relief of every receptionist with a tabletop tree and a ceramic sleigh candy dish, the guide does not condemn decorations.

"The mere presence of secular holiday decorations (e.g., Christmas trees, wreath, Santa Claus), particularly if they are associated with a religion that a federal employee does not practice, generally will not create a hostile work environment," the guide states, citing evidence in a 2007 case against the Department of Transportation that ended happily.

But woe to those with holiday affections.

"The holidays do not provide an excuse to get touchy-feely with co-workers or subordinates," the guide advises. "A hug or kiss may not rise to the level of sexual harassment, but it could if an employee previously complained about such unwanted contact."

In the private sector, meanwhile, workplace advisers, etiquette consultants and advocacy groups have been issuing guidelines for harmonious office holidays since November. Things appear almost as complicated for U.S. businesses as they are for the feds.


"While the First Amendment to the United States Constitution limits the government's ability to promote a sectarian religious viewpoint, the First Amendment is not applicable to private businesses," explains the American Center for Law and Justice in its own legal brief.

"As such, private businesses have a much freer hand to include religious-themed components of the Christmas season in displays, advertisements, etc., without having to be concerned about needing to offset them with more secular aspects," the constitutional advocacy group says.

"A business may include a Nativity scene or play Christmas music on its property without violating the law. In sum, the way in which a company goes about celebrating the holidays is primarily a business decision, not a legal one."

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