christmas timer

Introduction

This one off article provides timely HR guidance on coping with Christmas parties and general festivities in the workplace.  Gone are the days when every company held a Christmas party.  This festive bash used to be a way of thanking staff for all their hard work during the year as well as starting the Christmas celebrations.  However, due to increasing costs and the fear of litigation means that many employers do not hold this annual event. 

Employers are increasingly aware that, if it goes wrong, which so often happens once the drink starts to flow, it could lead to discrimination, harassment or even unfair dismissal claims.  So what should you do?  This guidance will guide you through.

Preparation

Preparation and planning are key if employers want to avoid a severe financial and legal hangover in the New Year.  Decide why you are holding the party and carefully select the venue, refreshments and entertainment in line with that goal.  Employers must take into account the make up of all their employees, for example, if your workforce is mainly women, it is unlikely they are going to enjoy going to a lap dancing club.  As well as gender, consider the age of your workforce as well as nationality. 

Once you have decided on the event, it is good practice to issue guidance to staff about the event and behaviours expected.  If you are unfortunate and do have problems at the event the employee cannot use the excuse ‘I didn’t realise’ and then the whole matter becomes a grey area.

An example could be:-

You [if employees partners are also included, add: and your spouse, civil partner or partner] are invited to attend this year's Christmas party, which will take place on [date]. The party is being held at [venue], starting at [time] and ending at [time].

Dress code is [set out dress code details].

If you would like to attend, please confirm your attendance, and if you are bringing a guest, [email/telephone] no later than [date].

[Company name] will provide [set out drinks arrangements, for example: a free bar / all evening/wine, water or soft drinks with dinner but thereafter the bar will be a paying one. OR  You will be expected to pay for any alcoholic or soft drinks consumed during the course of the evening.]

If transport is provided:

[The organisation will provide a coach between the office and the venue, which will return at the end of the evening. If you wish to reserve a place on the coach in both directions, please contact [name] by no later than [date]. If you do not reserve a place on the coach, we will assume you are making your own arrangements to get to the venue and then home afterwards.]

We do also need to remind you that you and your guest are required to conduct yourselves in an appropriate, mature and responsible manner throughout the evening. In particular:-

  • Alcohol should be consumed in moderation and you should consider arrangements to get home in advance.  [Name] can provide details of local taxi firms close to the venue if necessary. The organisation will not pay for the cost of taxis home
  • Improper conduct or other unacceptable behaviour will not be tolerated and is a serious disciplinary matter. This includes excessive drunkenness, the use of illegal drugs, unlawful or inappropriate discrimination or harassment, violence such as fighting or aggressive behaviour and serious verbal abuse or the use of other inappropriate language, whether this is towards a fellow employee, an invited guest or a member of the waiting or bar staff. Please be aware that such misconduct may amount to gross misconduct depending on the circumstances of the case, and possible summary dismissal.
  • Under health and safety legislation, you have a general duty to take reasonable care of your own health and safety and that of others who may be affected by your acts or omissions. Please bear this in mind at the event.

Finally, you are reminded that you are required to report for work the following day, unless you have arranged in advance to take this as a day's annual leave. Any unauthorised absence on the day after the party will be treated as a disciplinary issue. Any sickness absence on this day will be required to be supported by a doctor's certificate. Any costs incurred from your GP’s surgery in this regard will be the employee’s responsibility. A hangover is an unacceptable reason for sickness absence.

All that remains is for the organisation to wish all attendees an enjoyable evening.

Religion

There has been much written about whether holding a Christmas party is discriminating against non-Christian staff and we have all seen articles referring to ‘winter’ rather than Christmas lights.  It is unlikely that holding a Christmas party would in itself be seen as religious discrimination because generally these parties are more about having a staff get-together and boosting morale than celebrating religion. However, employers can face discrimination claims if they do not take different religions into account when planning their Christmas party. A claim has not yet been lodged, but focusing on one Christian festival has the potential to cause offence. Location, theme, timing and catering should all be carefully considered, and a choice of non-alcoholic drinks and vegetarian options are a must.

Harassment

Would the company be liable for the actions of an employee who harassed another member of staff at the Christmas party?  An employer can be held liable for the actions of an employee, even if the harassment occurs outside working hours. Comments made at a Christmas party that are intended to be good natured but are perceived by an individual to be offensive, could result in a claim. In one case, a senior City lawyer admitted mentioning in public that a 29-year-old female solicitor had a ‘great cleavage’.  The comments were made during an office Christmas party, but ended up in a tribunal.

So what can employers do to a harassment claim?  The employer will not be liable if it can show that it took reasonable practicable steps to prevent it from occurring so issuing guidance as set out above will provide excellent evidence of how you managed the risk. Having clear equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies, in your Staff Handbook, which regularly reviewed and promoted to staff are also good tools to confirm that staff were aware of what behaviour could be classed as harassment and that this behaviour is not tolerated by the company. 

Top tips for enjoying the Christmas party

  • Decide why you are holding the party and prepare accordingly
  • Consider your workforce and ensure the event is not going to upset one group of people
  • Ensure there is non-alcoholic drinks and vegetarian food options available
  • Have in place equal opportunities and harassment polices which are taken seriously
  • Issue behaviour guidelines and warn staff of the potential consequences of unacceptable behaviour
  • If a complaint is raised, it should be taken seriously and consistently. 

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