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Annie Hayes



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Investing against festive fall-out


Merry Christmas
According to recent national and employment press, the chances are bleak of your company ending the festive season without a stint in hospital and a disciplinary hearing.

Employment law firm Croner reports that more than a third of employers note incidents of sexual harassment, and almost a quarter of christmas celebrations result in staff accidents.

Potential disciplinary hearings and grievances from bad behaviour at the work party means that more than a quarter of UK employers wish they didn’t have to stage a christmas event.

Does The Times have it right by terming the nine out of ten employers who agree to these festivities either “brave or foolhardy”?

Sidney Foster, Managing Director of materials supplier S.H. Foster International, sees the christmas party as a necessary, if perilous, route to a company’s success. “It’s important for staff morale. If you show employees they’re valued, they’ll work more productively.”

By ensuring the company has planned for harassment and legal issues, the christmas party may prove an effective means of boosting employees for a new year.

Employees may feel bereft if denied alcohol, but think carefully about providing a free bar. This can legally be seen as condoning drunken behaviour, and firms may be liable for harassment claims brought against the ‘lairy’ offenders.

The company should show it has taken reasonable steps to prevent drunken abuse. Provide soft drinks, avoid extended periods of drinking and consider offering food.

Pre-party drinks in the pub count as an extension of work, so all the harassment laws and liability risks apply.

If considering dismissing a drunken employee, it must be shown that genuine business interests were threatened by their behaviour, and that adequate investigations were conducted.

Brief employees
Remind staff, in a meeting or a memo, that they will be attending a work event where work policies and disciplinary procedures apply. Inappropriate behaviour, or taking the next day off with a hangover, may be a disciplinary matter.

Employees working on a sensitive project should be reminded that discussing it after too many sherries is unacceptable.

Canadian HR Reporter suggests employees make a “To Do” list for their return to work after the christmas period. It will keep staff focused and aware that there is still work to be done.

Company policies
Check that the companies policies on anti-harassment, anti-discrimination and others governing behavioural standards of employees are in place and up to date, including any new areas of discrimination.

If harassment does occur during the work event, the employer will not be liable if it can show that it took reasonably practicable steps to prevent it.

Discrimination claims
Plan the theme, timing, location, catering and guest list carefully- a claim of unlawful discrimination (sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion) can disrupt the company with investigations, disciplinary hearings and grievances.

If the company intends to invite partners to the christmas party, make sure this includes same sex couples to avoid claims of sexual discrimination.

Discrimination claims may be brought against an employer on religious grounds if they are not seen to consider all faiths when planning the work event. Non-alcoholic and vegetarian options are essential.

During the event
Employment arbitration service: Acas warns that the employer may be on shaky ground if staff claim they are drinking to dull the pain of not getting a christmas bonus. Employees can argue that it has become contractual through custom and practice.

Promising a bonus at a christmas event may be held as a binding agreement, so the employer should be careful what they agree to.

The employer should act as an example, staying alert and avoiding the temptation to dance on the photocopier.

Ask a few employees to stay relatively sober and aware, to keep watch over the event and limit problems.

Drug users may find themselves dismissed for gross misconduct. Aside from the criminal aspect of taking drugs, the employer can argue that its reputation and faith in the employee has been damaged.

After the event
Drink driving
Acas notes that the firm has a duty of care to their staff. As it’s the company’s party, the employer should take some responsibility for getting people home safely.

Provide telephone numbers of taxis, end the party when public transport is still running, or select a venue which is conveniently located.

The christmas party may seem fraught with potential problems, yet by carefully planning and monitoring the event, it can prove a useful boost to employee morale, and encourage a positive new year.

Sarah Fletcher is a freelance journalist.

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Annie Hayes


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