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12 Dangers of Christmas

OK. It’s got to be done. It’s time for the annual Grinchathon. Sorry folks, but Christmas is riddled with risk. Every year I write to remind my clients and they all nod wisely but I am not fooled ……. And every year, at least one client (a bit red-faced) asks me to sort out a morning after the night before grievance or discipline because they haven’t taken my advice.

So here are the risks (and they do not involve the simple matter of a reindeer standing on your foot or Santa losing his sat nav app). Ignore at your peril.

1. Forgetting to advise employees that a work social is work

The work Christmas party is just that – work -so make sure you set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. If an act would not stand up to scrutiny in the cold and sober light of day and would merit disciplinary action, it will be treated as a disciplinary action if the employee does it at the party. Drunkenness is not a defence.

Provide clear written guidance to all employees about acceptable standards of behaviour at work-related social events, equal opportunities and harassment - and on the disciplinary sanctions that could result from breaches of the rules. Make it clear that you will not tolerate fighting, excessive alcohol consumption, use of illegal drugs, inappropriate behaviour, sexist or racist remarks, and comments about sexual orientation, disability, age or religion.

If your employees attend parties organised by clients or customers, ensure they are aware of the standards of behaviour expected of them, and that despite the fact it is a party, they are attending as a representative of their employer.

2. Are Christmas decorations discriminatory?

They’re usually tacky but not illegal. Most decorations are not expressly religious (such as trees, lights and tinsel),so they are unlikely to cause offence to non-Christians. Where employees want to put up decorations in the workplace, provide some guidance and ensure they are tasteful. Avoid mistletoe!

3. Christmas parties and non-Christian employees

While a non-Christian employee might suggest that the office party discriminates against them as their own religious festival is not celebrated, it's not really likely to find favour with an employment tribunal, especially if the event is a thank you to staff for their efforts over the past year, rather than a religious celebration.

4. Insisting that everyone comes along

Don’t insist that all staff attend the Christmas party. Some non-Christian staff may not want to attend on religious grounds. If the event is out of working hours, many people have family responsibilities that may prevent or make attendance difficult. Remember to invite employees who may be away from the office on absences such as sick leave, maternity leave or secondment.

5. Timing, location and food

Check the venue, theme, menu and date of the party to take different religious groups into account. Alcohol-fuelled parties may offend Muslims and Friday nights may cause a problem for Orthodox Jews.

Employees of certain religious beliefs may be vegetarian or unable to eat certain foods. Check beforehand and arrange for some acceptable food. By the way, vegetarians are nearly always offered vegetarian lasagne or stilton and broccoli quiche. Dull, dull, dull! Just because it’s got a bit of cranberry sauce on the side doesn’t make it any more interesting!

Include everyone in the festivities by playing music that will suit all and ensure that your entertainment takes account of all ages, races and religions.

6. Should I provide alcohol? Or not?

Strike the right balance right between allowing employees to relax and have a good time, but not allowing the Christmas party to degenerate to a drunken riot. You have a duty to take reasonable care of employees and can be liable for their wrongful acts in these circumstances. The most common complains are harassment, usually on grounds of sex and assault. In these circumstances, you will have to explore the complaints through the disciplinary process and the usual sanctions will apply.

Limit the number of free alcoholic drinks by advising what the number of free drinks per individual will be beforehand and informing all those attending. Make sure that there are plenty of soft drinks and ask people to stop drinking if they appear to be drunk.

Alcohol makes people say and do silly things. In one case an employee claimed that, during a chat at the firm’s Christmas party, his boss had promised that within a couple of years he would be put on the same salary as another colleague who earned twice as much as him. The employee later resigned and claimed constructive dismissal on the grounds that his employer had broken his contractual promise. On this occasion, the tribunal found in favour of the employer, saying that the context of the conversation indicated that the employer did not intend to enter into any legally binding contractual commitment. A promise made at a Christmas party may still amount to a binding contractual agreement, depending on the circumstances, so the employer was lucky to have won the case.

7. Drugs

It is an offence for an employer to knowingly permit or even to ignore the use, production or supply of any controlled drugs, from cannabis to cocaine, taking place on their premises. In such cases, you may well be justified in taking disciplinary action against the employee, which might result in a dismissal for gross misconduct.

8. Presents

Most companies tend to adopt the use of Secret Santa gifts now. Make sure your Secret Santa is not a bad Santa. Remind staff that gifts must be appropriate and inoffensive.

Provide guidelines for gifts and ban suggestive gifts as they are the most likely to cause complaints. If Secret Santa is going to be on the agenda, don’t make assumptions about who may, or may not, join in. Aside from religious claims, missing someone out could lead to a range of complaints from bullying and harassment, through to claims of discrimination on the grounds of race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion or religious belief.

9. Getting home

Give some thought to how your employees will get home after the party. Think about providing transport home, and provide phone numbers for local registered cab companies.

If a member of your staff has clearly drunk too much and plans to drive home, you should take responsibility as part of your duty of care to your employees. So you’ll have to prevent him doing so. Consider ending the party before public transport stops running, or make arrangements to ensure that employees can get home safely.

10. Complaints arising from the office party

Be prepared by ensuring your anti-discrimination, and bullying and harassment policies are up to date. Remember, these policies still apply at the office party, and if needs be, bring them to the attention of your employees beforehand.

Employees may say that the comments or actions of colleagues at the office party have upset them. You can be vicariously liable for actions of employees at these events and victims could bring harassment claims, so take any complaints made seriously.

If grievances are raised, or disciplinary action is required as a result of incidents during the festive season, follow proper procedures and take all grievances and disciplinary matters seriously.

Investigate any complaints, interview witnesses, meet with the employee to discuss their complaint and write to them to explain your conclusions. If the complaint is upheld, you may need to take disciplinary action against the offender.

11. The morning after the night before

The Christmas party is often held in the middle of the week, so employees are expected to be in work the next day. On other occasions, the Christmas party is held at lunchtime, and people may be late back and/or tiddly on their return.

Be clear and consistent on what is and is not acceptable and the circumstances in which the disciplinary procedure will be invoked. If you have reason to suspect an employee who phones in sick is actually off through over-indulgence, you can carry out an investigation and discipline if appropriate.

12. Christmas bonuses

If you have paid a discretionary Christmas bonus for the past few years but can’t afford to pay it this year due to the credit crunch, can you just stop?

Even if the bonus is discretionary, employees may argue that it's become contractual through custom and practice. Think carefully about the decision not to pay and explain your reasons to employees with a view to reaching an agreed solution.

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Although every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information contained in this blog, nothing herein should be construed as giving advice and no responsibility will be taken for inaccuracies or errors.

Copyright © 2018 all rights reserved. You may copy or distribute this blog as long as this copyright notice and full information about contacting the author are attached. The author is Kate Russell of Russell HR Consulting Ltd.

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