We’re approaching the most wonderful time of the year again! Slowly but surely, everyone will start to relax and enjoy the festivities of the approaching Christmas season.
Christmas parties can be a great morale booster, but employers should still be aware of potential employment law risks such as sexual harassment, alcohol-fuelled brawls, religious discrimination and party-related absenteeism.
As many companies plan their Christmas parties and meals, Neelam Afzal of Wildings Solicitors reminds us of the pitfalls of such occasions and how to prevent them ruining the Christmas merriment!
As an employer, you should know that organising any type of work social function can result in you being potentially liable for the actions of your employees, whether deliberate or innocent! Keep in mind the following when planning:
Whom to invite
Staff should not be required to attend the office Christmas party. Christmas is a first and foremost a Christian holiday, so if an employee does not want to attend on religious grounds that should be acknowledged and accepted.
If the party is planned for out of hours, some people may also have family responsibilities that may prevent them coming so bear that in mind.
The more the merrier
Just because employees may be on maternity or sick leave that does not mean they should be forgotten when work events and functions are arranged. Always remember to include them in any invite lists otherwise allegations of discrimination could ensue!
Decorating the work area
Christmas decorations do not breach health and safety rules provided that a proper risk assessment is carried out looking at where and how decorations are displayed. Particular attention should be paid to those that could pose potential fire hazards. Also, remember that your insurance may not cover damage caused by untested electrical equipment so make sure you switch off those Christmas lights before leaving!
If you decide to arrange a Secret Santa, make sure staff are told that gifts should be inoffensive and non-discriminatory. You might consider a gift to be very funny and entertaining to the other staff but the receiver may not agree and this could lead to tension and even formal complaints so think carefully before you buy!
The party rules
Despite the festive atmosphere, a work Christmas party is legally an extension of the office environment even if offsite and outside normal working hours. Employers are therefore likely to remain liable for acts of harassment, discrimination, assault or other unwanted conduct carried out by their employees.
When planning the party or any work function, have a specific policy or procedure that deals with work functions and the standards of behaviour expected and when an event is by approaching employees of the contents via the intranet and public displays around the office.
Such a policy should include the following warnings to employees:
Parties and photocopiers
Everyone has heard of stories where someone has got carried away with the photocopier at an office party with huge regrets the following day. To avoid this happening at your company keep the photocopiers locked away from overenthusiastic hands!
Food, glorious food
There could always be members of staff with dietary requirements or religious restrictions when it comes to food and drinks so remember to check this and cater to all needs as far as possible.
It will be near impossible for an employer to keep an eye on all its employees at a function and even harder to know who has drunk a lot and who has not. Remember, maintaining a free bar throughout the evening will encourage excessive alcohol intake.
To avoid this, consider restricting the amount of free alcohol available and don’t be afraid to ask individuals to slow down their intake if they appear to be a little too tipsy! Also providing plenty of food early in the event or serving a full meal will dampen the effects of too much alcohol.
To ensure there are no accidents resulting in claims and consequential absences to manage it would be wise where possible and financially viable to arrange for taxis or buses to transport staff home safely.
Lastly, don’t forget that some people do not drink alcohol. There should be lots of alcohol-free choices and lots of water! Also, watch out for members of staff who are under 18 and therefore are not allowed to drink.
Social Media is a wonderful but dangerous tool in the wrong hands! Ensure staff are aware of your social media policy leading up to the Christmas party, and the consequences of breaching it by posting pictures or comments that may bring the company into disrepute or infringe the rights of other staff.
Criminal offences and drugs
It is an offence for an employer to knowingly permit or even to ignore the use, production or supply of any controlled drugs taking place on their premises. In addition, employees who are convicted of criminal offences involving drugs, sexual misconduct or drink driving may also damage their employer's reputation or undermine trust and confidence.
Make sure that staff are aware of your disciplinary policy and that any breach in this regard will be actioned.
The next day
It is highly likely that some employees may be a little worse for wear the day after the Christmas party! Ensure your expectations regarding absence the next day are communicated to all staff but be reasonable about what to expect from those who do turn up for work.
Christmas is generally the one time of year that everyone enjoys and is a time for seeing family and friends. The workplace can and should be as much a part of that ethos as anything else and if you follow the above advice, everyone should have a safe and enjoyable festive period without any regrets!
Wildings Solicitors wishes you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!