Christmas party time

office-party-250It’s that time again when employers make that big decision – to party or not to party. Christmas parties have received bad press over recent years with many organisations avoiding it altogether. However, it is possible for employers and employees to enjoy an office party – with some party planning and, more boringly, simple risk management.

1. The invite

Do not insist that all staff attend the Christmas party. Christmas is a Christian holiday – so do not pressure someone to attend if they don’t want to on the grounds of religion. If the event is out of hours, also remember that some people have family responsibilities that may prevent attendance.

2. Secret Santa

At the risk of being a party-pooper, it is best to ask that all gifts are inoffensive. Some gifts – notably underwear and sex toys – have sparked complaints in the past.

3. Decorating the office

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) have warned:

  • not to use a swivel chair to put up decorations – use a stepladder instead;
  • don’t hang the tinsel on computers or other sources of heat;
  • don’t decorate emergency exit signs; and
  • that your insurance may not cover damage caused by untested electrical equipment – so switch off tree lights before going home.
  • party balloons can kill: around 3.6 million people in Britain suffer from some degree of latex allergy; and
  • Christmas trees are a hazard – so make sure they are secure and won’t be knocked over by people passing by or pulling cables.

4. Alcohol

Employers providing free drink or putting a credit card behind a bar should be careful. In one case, three employees of the Whitbread Beer Company got drunk and had a fight after a seminar on improving behavioural skills. They successfully argued that their resulting dismissals were unfair. A relevant factor was that the employer had provided a free bar – and therefore condoned their behaviour.

Also, watch out for under-age drinking. Employers shouldn’t allow under-18s to drink. In an extreme example, an employer was found responsible for the death of a girl at the office party due to alcohol poisoning.

5. Mistletoe Misdemeanours

Policies on bullying and harassment and discrimination still apply at the office party. Just make sure everyone knows this and knows what they are.

This is one reason why mistletoe is dangerous. One survey reported found that, while 80% of women would laugh off a pass made by a male co-worker, boss or client, 13% would lodge a complaint. The laws on discrimination apply at the office party regardless of location. So when one man told a female colleague, “****** hell, you look worth one” at an after-work leaving event taking place in a local pub, the Tribunal had little difficulty in ruling that it was in the course of employment and therefore discriminatory.

Employers can find that they end up paying for unwanted advances between co-workers if Tribunals characterise the behaviour as evidence of a culture of victimisation or harassment.

6. Christmas bonuses

If you have paid a discretionary Christmas bonus for several years, staff can argue that it has become contractual through custom and practice. So if times have been tough and you can’t afford to pay a bonus this year, tell staff why you feel unable to pay it and try to agree a solution. ACAS suggests that you could offer to pay a proportion of the bonus or stagger payments in the next few months; or you could offer to pay the drinks bill at the Christmas party.

7. Getting home

Tipsy staff who plan to drive home are, unfortunately, the employer’s responsibility. ACAS points out that employers have a duty of care to their employees – and because it’s their party, employers must think about travel arrangements. Consider ending the party before public transport stops running; or provide the phone numbers for local cab companies and encourage staff to use them.

8. The morning after

If the party is mid-week and people are expected in work the next day, ACAS recommends that you provide plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and food. Before the party, ensure that all staff know that disciplinary action could be taken if they fail to turn up for work because of overdoing it the night before.