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Christmas is usually a time when employers want to show appreciation for their employees’ hard work throughout the year. It provides a reason for a much-needed, morale-boosting celebration – especially in these recessionary times. With careful planning, festivities can go off with a bang without the threat of legal reprisals after the tree lights are taken down for another year.
Tinsel, baubles and a treeEmployers are under a duty to take reasonable care for the health and safety of their employees, and must comply with various pieces of statutory health and safety legislation.Although employees may be eager to dust off the fibre-optic Christmas tree and hang up the lights, employers should conduct a proper risk assessment first, particularly if the decorations pose a potential fire hazard. Employers in serviced and leased offices may need to check any policies governing the use of external electrical equipment.
Party party party!Since Christmas is a Christian holiday, staff should not feel pressurised to attend an organised party. Employers may face discrimination claims if they insist on attendance - for example, on the grounds of religion and belief from employees that belong to other religious denominations.The party’s timing and location should also be carefully thought through. Locations must be accessible for all, including disabled employees and, if possible, the event should be held at a time when the majority can attend. For example, holding the party in the evening might be tricky for those with childcare responsibilities. Employers should also avoid clashes with other religious rest-days or festivals.
Mulled wine & Bucks FizzIndividuals like to let their hair down during the festive season, sometimes with disastrous consequences. It is unreasonable to expect staff to remain entirely sober if an employer is providing drink at a Christmas “do”, and self-restraint is not always top of everyone’s priorities at this time. For this reason, employers should ensure they have clear written policies - perhaps in a staff handbook - on acceptable standards of behaviour, including guidelines on alcohol consumption and the use of illegal drugs. Guidelines should also set out possible sanctions if these policies are breached. Such policies should obviously be in force year round but during the party season they are particularly relevant. While outlawing the consumption of alcohol is likely to be viewed by most employees as a bit “Bah, humbug”, it is prudent to ensure that non-alcoholic drinks are available at any celebration, particularly if under-age employees are attending or those whose religious practice advocates abstinence. Similarly, it is worth checking dietary requirements to ensure those who are unable or choose not to eat certain foods are fully accommodated.
Under the mistletoeThe actions of inebriated employees, full of festive cheer, occasionally lead to disrespectful behaviour towards others. Employers may in certain circumstances be held liable for such actions, even if they occur outside the office and working hours, and even if the harassment stems from a third party (for example, invited clients or party entertainers). And it is not just unwanted sexual advances that are a cause for concern. Employment law also protects employees against unwanted conduct on the grounds of age, disability, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation.Monitoring each employee’s behaviour throughout the night is impossible, but having up-to-date policies on harassment available and training staff regularly in equal opportunities, rights and responsibilities will help reduce the risk of harassment occurring in the first place. This will also help an employer’s defence if a claim should materialise at a later date.Employers should also consider vetting entertainers or after-dinner speakers to ensure the content of their performance is not going to cause offence.Any employee complaints about inappropriate behaviour - whether by a colleague or a third party - should be dealt with properly with a full investigation and in accordance with statutory legislation and guidance.
TaxiAs the night draws to a close, employers’ health and safety obligations require them to plan how staff will get home and ensure those who are inebriated do not drive. Employers should discuss with employees in advance how they will get home, particularly if the party finishes late and is being held in an unfamiliar location. Hiring coaches or mini buses to drop people home or take them to a central location is one option. Providing employees in advance with the details of a local cab firm is another.
The morning after the night beforeUnless the party is on a Friday, employers may want to confirm that they expect employees to come to work the next day. If employees fail to turn up or are late without good reason, employers could consider disciplinary action although they may feel they can be more lenient about lateness after a late night at a Christmas party. It is probably helpful to clarify in advance what is expected, even suggesting to employees (including those who didn’t go to the party, so everyone is treated the same) they are allowed to arrive half an hour or so later than usual.