The Perils Of Partying At Christmas – A Guide For Employers

Yes, it’s that time of the year again – Christmas party season!  And staff parties are back to being in-person events.

The Christmas party should be fun and festive but for employers it can also be the worst nightmare with all the issues associated with unwanted advances, religious discrimination, drink driving, drugs, pictures on social media or dealing with the employee who fails to turn up the next day because they are the worse for wear. For the employer, it’s a fine balance between being perceived as a party pooper managing the risk, and ensuring the employees get a great party as a thank you for all their hard work.

Here are a few things to think about in anticipation of your festivities…

Employer’s duty of care at the Christmas party

Where a work-related Christmas party is organised by the Company, the employer is liable for the actions of their employees and the Company owes its employees a “duty of care”.

Alcohol, drugs, free bars and drink driving

If you provide a free bar, people drink more – it’s human nature! It’s also the FD’s worst nightmare but if you are going to provide a free bar, put some basic controls in place and manage under-age drinking. Also be aware that some people may decide to take drugs.

Drink driving – it is the employee’s responsibility for ensuring that they don’t drive under the influence of alcohol but there is no harm in sending out a message at Christmas party time to remind them. And, beware the breathalysers first thing in the morning.

Unwanted advances and physical assault at a work Christmas party

If an employee is the subject of either unwanted advances, comments or inappropriate behaviour, it is no different to being the subject of such treatment in the office during the working day. If the employee complains the following day, the matter should be investigated in the normal manner. The fact that the alleged offence took place at the Christmas party, fuelled by alcohol and was just “a bit of fun” or just “a bit of banter” is no defence.

Also, if a couple of employees get into a fight at a Christmas party, the likelihood is that they will need to be suspended whilst an investigation is carried out. And you’ll need witness statements from the other employees at the party.

The morning after a work Christmas party

The day after the party might be a normal working day for some so how are you going to manage the situation when employees are not fit for work the next day? Are you going to withhold sick pay and some will no doubt use the “working from home” option which can cause resentment because not everyone can play that card. There will always be businesses with 24/7 Operations – how are you going to manage when your Call Centre is not fully staffed the next morning.

Where employees don’t get paid for being off sick, they may decide to stagger in but they aren’t exactly much use to you – can you send them home? If in doubt – yes. They must definitely be sent home if they are operating dangerous machinery or driving Fork Lifts etc.

However you manage these situations – be consistent in your approach.

The use of Social Media at a work Christmas party

Significant reputational or brand damage can be done to your business by the posting of inappropriate pictures from the Christmas party on social media. Ideally, you will have strict controls in place through your Social Media guidelines but, if not, make sure it is clear what is and isn’t acceptable.

Also be careful what gets posted on the Company WhatsApp group.

Religious and race discrimination and different cultures

We live in a multi-cultural society where we recognise different races, religions, creeds and beliefs and not all employees celebrate Christmas (or they may celebrate in different ways at different religious festivals) so don’t make attendance at the party compulsory and practice what you preach in your Diversity and Equality policy.

Secret Santa at work

Some traditions carry on in the office and many teams have a Secret Santa – all good innocent fun most of the time and the gifts are fine. But, every so often, someone will decide to buy a highly inappropriate gift which may have been purchased on the Anne Summers website and it may cause offence to the recipient and could give rise to a claim.

And – finally, commitments at Christmas parties about a pay increase or a bonus only count if they’re in writing!

The Christmas party should be fun and festive but unfortunately they can give rise to all sorts of unwanted issues and if anyone thinks I’m a party pooper, all these examples are based on true stories from a career in 35-year career in HR and have resulted in dismissals, disciplinary hearings, sexual harassment claims, scraps in car parks, fights on the dance floor and drugs in the cloakroom.

About the author:

This is a guest blog by Adrian Berwick, who is a very experienced and commercially aware Human Resources professional with a generalist HR background.  He has given support on issues ranging from input on strategic planning and business re-organisation through to practical advice on employee management issues including discipline, grievance, TUPE, ill health, redundancy, recruitment, remuneration and benefits, terms and conditions and pensions.  He recently started his own HR consultancy, having been an HR Director of a major Facilities Management company for 11 years.

AB Commercial HR Solutions
Adrian Berwick

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