Office Christmas parties are becoming more elaborate, and across the UK nearly £1 billion will be splashed out on everything from professional entertainment and decorations to high-quality food and free-flowing alcohol.
After a hard year’s graft, many employers use the Christmas party as a way to encourage motivation, loyalty, and staff retention in the New Year. While this return on investment cannot be overlooked, businesses should recognise the hidden gremlins, which can crop up. Employment tribunals can cost employers anywhere between £500 and £200,000, meaning a faux pas at the office night out could turn into a Nightmare Before Christmas, particularly following the abolition of Employment Tribunal fees earlier this year which have made them more accessible.
Although staff should be encouraged to have fun, businesses should be aware that the Christmas party is considered an extension of the workplace and therefore, any inappropriate behavior could have serious ramifications. A useful way in which to minimise potential post-party hangovers is to circulate a memo to all staff gently reminding them of the fact that the party is a work event and although fun is on the menu, acting like a turkey is not.
Similarly, at Law At Work, when dealing with the fallout of Christmas parties, they have commonly seen that overindulgence causes the majority of HR headaches. It would be wise, therefore, to supply plenty of soft drinks or even consider enforcing a limit on the amount of alcoholic beverages supplied.
Consider the timing of the Christmas party as well. Employees who have consumed copious amounts of eggnog and then topped this off with some mulled wine, may be unable to perform their duties to the expected standard the following day. Employers would do well to remember any disciplinary action in relation to their performance could be potentially unfair as a consequence.
If the next day is a working day, this may also bring unauthorised absences and lateness. If employers intend to take a tough line on this, they should make it clear in advance that unauthorised absences will be dealt with under the disciplinary procedure and that a hangover is not an acceptable reason for sickness absence.
Sharing is not always caring
With the increase in use of the Facebook Live function and Periscope, which allows users to stream live video, antics from the office party could go viral before the last mince pie has been eaten. The office party banter can also continue well after the tinsel has been taken down through email and social media.
In any workplace, an acceptable use policy for social media is strongly advised. Ahead of the Christmas party it would be wise to remind employees videos or photos that may cause embarrassment or bring bad publicity will not be tolerated. It would also serve as a reminder that employees respect the privacy of colleagues potentially avoiding a serious workplace dispute, or allegations of bullying.
You complete me
Despite what a glut of Christmas movies have taught us, tenderly holding a colleague, gazing deeply into their eyes, leaning in close to them, and sealing the deal with a romantic kiss in a workplace setting might well be unwanted.
Following the flood of sexual harassment allegations which have been made public across all types of workplaces, from Westminster to Hollywood and the White House, a recent BBC survey found that a shocking half of British women and a fifth of men have been sexually harassed at work.
Employers can protect themselves against sexual harassment complaints by ensuring employees are aware of equal opportunities – and bullying and harassment policies. Clear guidelines should be set out as to what inappropriate behavior is.
It is also worth noting that if a claim is raised, employers might not be held liable for the actions of a rogue staff member if they have arranged adequate regular equal opportunities training for staff.
The sanctions for sexual harassment claims can have a severe impact for employers and law firms are not exempt from this. In one case, a female solicitor settled her case for £1 million after a colleague told her she had “great baps”.
Similarly, it would be prudent to gently point out to staff that inappropriate Secret Santa gifts will not be tolerated. Nobody wants to get edible candy underwear from their boss, or worse, a picture of your boss modelling said underwear. In general, humour in a gift is well received, but bear in mind intended good humour does not always translate.
Christmas can be a time of high emotion where the cocktail of suppressed workplace rivalries and alcohol can lead to scuffles. A policy on workplace social events could cover the repercussions of any violent behaviour, but if this is deemed unnecessary, a ‘Christmas Party Statement’ could be put in place, with a designated member of staff charged with letting all staff know of the consequences of any tussles near the tinsel.
In a recent 2016 case, an employer was sued by an employee who had suffered irreversible brain damage when a punch from his managing director knocked him to the floor.
Welcome one and all
Be aware not all staff may celebrate Christmas. Some religions and faiths do not allow the consumption of alcohol or certain foods, so consider what alternatives are required to make your party welcoming for all.
Additionally, certain venues may be unsuitable for staff with disabilities. Failure to consider this may drastically damage your relationship with them and could lead to claims of discrimination.
Show me the money
Whilst it is the time of the year to give presents, beware managers who get caught up in the merriment and spirit who blithely offer promotions and pay rises. In one case, an employee resigned and brought a constructive dismissal case, as his manager had broken a promise made at a Christmas party to double his salary. The Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) warned that a manager’s comments could be interpreted to be a contractually binding promise; however, in this instance, ruled in favour of the ‘lucky’ employer.
Some employers have given in to festive fear and cancelled the Christmas party – but by sticking to the above practical tips, employers can help the holiday season go smoothly and avoid being landed with a lump of coal in the form of a legal claim.