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Christmas spirit(s)

office-party-250It’s nearly Christmas time again and, without being a party pooper, the festivities can present some unique challenges for employers. So to get some help on managing these please read on.

Ok, we admit it, we included this piece in our December 2014 Newsletter! However, we have updated with some further presents of advice and in any event Christmas traditions and behaviours don’t tend to move on much…

1. Christmas Party

Avoid insisting that all staff attend the Christmas party. Christmas is a Christian holiday and some staff may not wish to on the grounds of their religion. If the event is out of hours, also remember that some people have family responsibilities that may prevent attendance.

Be careful if you’re planning on providing free drink or putting a credit card behind a bar. 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.

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.

It might be said that there is no such thing as bad publicity but the last thing an employer needs is for images or footage from its Christmas party going viral on social media sites for all the wrong reasons.

Employers should ensure that employees are aware either through their Social Media Policy or specific guidelines circulated in advance of the Christmas party, that employees should not place material on social media sites which would adversely affect the reputation of the employer and that such conduct may result in the employee being disciplined in accordance with the employer’s disciplinary policy.

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.

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.

2. Secret Santa

At the risk of being a party-pooper, employers should politely remind employees that their Equal Opportunities, Dignity at Work and Bullying and Harassment policies apply at all times, including Christmas. It is best to ask that all gifts are inoffensive and if a member of staff thinks a gift may cause offence to the recipient or anyone else, then best not to give it. Some gifts – notably underwear and sex toys – have sparked complaints in the past!

3. Decorating the office

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

4. IT problems

December can bring with it a more relaxed atmosphere in the workplace. Employers should watch out for greater informality in the style and content of emails and the downloading or distribution of inappropriate material, which can lead to claims against the employer for discrimination or harassment either by the recipient or by a colleague who views the inappropriate communication.

5. 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.

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