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Bah! Humbug! Some Christmas Party Pitfalls
By Christopher J Sherliker

The Christmas party is understandably regarded as a gesture by an employer to say thank you to its employees for their contribution throughout the year.

In many cases, it can represent the only time that all employees come together outside of the working environment. It is important to understand that most employees will behave reasonably. On the other hand, there may be others who wish to let their hair down a little more and, particularly if alcohol is consumed, this can sometimes lead to unacceptable behaviour. Each year, many employers experience difficulties following incidents at the Christmas party.

Dave Thompson of Silverman Sherliker Specialist HR Services explains some of the issues that need to be considered by an employer and how, by laying down a few ground rules, much unwanted trouble can be avoided.

Where and When Should the Party be Held?

A small business Christmas party is likely to be more low-key than a corporate event. It might involve a meal at a local pub or restaurant rather than an evening at a hotel with dinner, band and disco. Some venues may offer shared Christmas parties where different organisations come together, in which case you would be wise to consider whether you wish your employees to be mixing with, say, a local competitor.

Some organisations will opt to hold the party in the office, hiring caterers or inviting staff to bring food and drink to share. Health and safety issues will therefore need to be considered. The classic party-went-wrong story is of the photocopier being used for dubious purposes. This type of behaviour is relatively rare, but there have been other extreme examples over the years where drunken employees have been fatally injured. Your employees will need to be reminded to take basic precautions, such as avoiding fire hazards and using a stepladder to put up decorations, rather than standing on the furniture. Likewise, you should ensure that a full risk assessment is undertaken and, if necessary, certain areas of the office may need to be closed off whilst the party is in progress.

Having a lunchtime party might be attractive, particularly if you have a high proportion of employees with caring responsibilities in the evening. You should therefore consider the impact of lunchtime drinking upon your employees’ ability to work in the afternoon. This is particularly relevant if machinery is being operated or employees are in contact with clients.

Whilst a weekend party may be the preferred option, this may not be possible as venues can become fully booked within a short space of time. A midweek event should always come with a reminder that an employee not attending work the following day when he/she was seen to be the worse for wear at the party is likely to result in disciplinary action being taken.

Who Should Pay?

The Christmas party is often seen as a test of the company’s generosity and the management can easily be judged according to whether they are open-handed or Scrooge-like.

But, even though they generally have less money, small firms are more likely to embrace Christmas festivities than larger organisations. A survey conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in November 2009 indicated that over 82 percent of firms employing up to 49 employees said they would be providing a Christmas party or lunch, compared to only 37 percent of organisations with 5,000 people or more.

With less cash around due to the recession, cheaper party options may be favoured, but the CIPD advises against scrapping parties altogether because of the potential damage to employee engagement and the resultant downturn in organisational performance.

Duty of Care

For legal purposes, office parties take place in the course of employment. Employers therefore have a duty of care towards their employees, and employees also have a duty to follow the policies regarding personal conduct that apply in the workplace. It is important that you advise your employees, before the event, that workplace guidelines for behaviour still apply.

The Christmas party may be the setting for pent-up passions between colleagues to be expressed. Where advances are unwelcome, this can lead to claims of sexual harassment. Tongues, loosened by alcohol, may also reveal prejudices that would not otherwise be expressed; or careless comments may be made about people’s age, race, disability, religion or sexual orientation. These personal remarks can lead to tribunal claims by offended staff. You may be held vicariously liable for discriminatory acts by your employees.

It is, therefore, important to ensure your Bullying and Harassment Policy is up to date and has been brought to the attention of all employees. This is the first step to providing a defence if a tribunal claim is brought against you. You may also be liable for failing to protect employees from harassment by third parties.

To ensure the party is as inclusive as possible, check that the needs and preferences of all staff are considered. To begin with, it is important to establish that most of the workforce wants to celebrate Christmas. Other religious festivals may be more relevant where a high proportion of the staff is non-Christian. For instance, where the workforce is mostly Hindu or Sikh, a Diwali party might be preferred.

Where the party is planned for a Friday, check that this does not exclude any Jewish employees whose Sabbath begins on Friday evening. Where partners are invited, the invitation should include same-sex, as well as opposite-sex partners. Providing a mix of music and entertainment should ensure that all ages are catered for. Remember also to ensure your venue is accessible to any staff with disabilities and discuss any adjustments that are needed with the venue management well ahead of the event.

Getting Home

You should ensure employees do not drive home when they are over the limit. One way to avoid this is to arrange for the party to end before public transport stops. Alternatively, you could provide taxis to ensure people get home safely, but you should ensure that all such transport is arranged through a reputable and correctly registered source.

A Watchful Eye

It is good practice to appoint at least one person to keep an eye out for any unacceptable behaviour (which now also includes harassment by third parties) and for them to deal with it immediately. Such behaviour may result from drink or from the exuberance of being off duty and, if more than one person is involved, it can escalate rapidly, which can prove to be extremely harmful to the organisation.

In the light of the above, it is good practice to remind employees that disciplinary action could be taken if:

  • They fail to turn up to work the next day due to over-indulgence
  • They are involved in any form of unacceptable behaviour and if gross misconduct is proven (such as fighting), this is likely to result in summary dismissal.

In raising these issues, you are unlikely to be thanked by the workforce. This, however, is by far the better of two evils, as we have had to deal with the fallout of clients’ non-compliance over the years and, believe me, it does not make for good reading.

Have Fun!

All these warnings might seem to take the fun out of the Christmas party, but they simply raise awareness of the potential pitfalls. If these are communicated correctly to employees, everyone can relax and enjoy the party!

Added: 20th December 2010

Christopher J Sherliker is a partner for Silverman Sherliker LLP who provide legal solutions across a spectrum of requirements.  Find out more about Silverman Sherliker LLP.

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