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Avoid the office party becoming a Nightmare Before Christmas

Posted: 6th December 2016

Avoid the office party becoming a Nightmare Before Christmas

Across the UK, businesses are expected to spend more on the office Christmas bash than Hillary Clinton spent in the recent presidential race. Nearly £1 billion, according to the event website Eventbrite, equating to an average of £42.48 per head, will be splashed out on everything from professional entertainment and decorations to high-quality food and free-flowing alcohol. Despite the price tag, taking the time to thank employees for their hard work is a well-known way to encourage motivation, loyalty, and staff retention in the New Year. While this return on investment cannot be overlooked, businesses should recognise the risks of staff letting their hair down in the festive season. Employment tribunals can cost anywhere between £500 and £200,000, meaning one small faux pas at the office night out could turn into a Nightmare Before Christmas.

Law at Work’s director of legal services Donald Mackinnon’s top tips to ensure employers don’t end up with a bill for much more than the turkey dinner….


Mulled wine mixed with colleagues

Although employers want staff to have fun, they should also be aware that they could be liable for the behaviour of employees at their Christmas party, whether it is held in the office or off-site and out of normal working hours. An email beforehand to let staff know that the party will be an extension of the workplace could be enough to set a distinction between that and a normal Friday night at the pub.  Overindulgence causes the majority of HR headaches at office parties, it would be wise, therefore, to supply plenty of soft drinks or even consider enforcing a limit. If a party is held midweek, merry employees may be unable to perform their duties as well the next day. Employers would do well to remember any disciplinary action in relation to their performance could be potentially unfair as a consequence.

All I Want For Christmas Is a Pay Rise

Whispers of possible pay rises and promotions to the sound of Mariah Carey’s Christmas classic can be an intoxicating mix for any employee and words of encouragement can easily be misinterpreted. One company was described as ‘lucky’ after the Employment Appeal Tribunal (EAT) ruled in favour of the employer after an employee claimed constructive dismissal on the grounds that his manager had broken a promise, made at a Christmas party, to double his salary. EAT decided that the context of the conversation indicated the manager did not intend to enter into any legally binding contractual commitment, however commentators warn it could easily have gone the other way.

Fancy a trip to Lapland?

A kiss under the mistletoe may be a sweet tradition, but in the workplace, flirty banter can quickly turn sour. Employers can aim to reduce the chances of staff getting over-friendly by putting in place a policy on workplace social events that sets out acceptable standards of behaviour at a party as well as any sanctions for breaches. Organisations can protect themselves against sexual harassment complaints by ensuring that staff are well aware of equal opportunities and/or bullying and harassment policies. It is also worth noting that if a claim is raised, employers might not be held liable for the actions of their employees if they have arranged adequate regular equal opportunities training for staff.

Festive fisticuffs

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.

Driving Home for Christmas
Legally there is an implied duty of care towards employees in the course of their employment, and the Christmas party comes under this definition. While it is not fully the responsibility of the organisation to make sure that staff get home safely after the Christmas party an employer may be liable if an employee is involved in an accident due to driving while drunk. An email beforehand advising staff to plan their journey home, providing taxi numbers or hired transport can help minimise the risk.

Keep it social

With the increase in use of the new 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 and especially ahead of the Christmas party it would be wise to remind employees that 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.

Welcome one and all

Be aware that 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. In addition to this, 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. Some employers have given in to festive fear and cancelled the Christmas party but with a few considerations employers can help the holiday season go much more smoothly and ensure hard working employees enjoy a chance to relax and enjoy the season.


Business Comment

Business Comment is the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce’s bi-monthly magazine. It provides insight on Edinburgh’s vibrant business community, with features on the city’s key sectors, interviews with leading figures and news on new business developments in the capital.
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