As perennial as Christmas itself, the employment issues surrounding the festive events of December, often create headaches (in all possible meanings) for employers / employees. Yet, like buying Christmas presents, with a bit of care, attention and preparation many of the possible worries and problems can be avoided.

The Build Up

Employers should remember all their employees in the build up before the last week of December. Not all of your employees may celebrate Christmas (with Christian connotations) and therefore appropriate sensitivity must be shown. While some organisations verge possibly too far on the side of caution (e.g. calling the period “Winterfest” etc) care should be taken so that employees do not feel excluded or uncomfortable by, for example, feeling compelled to take part in certain types of celebrations.

On a practical level, although employers may be happy to “get in the spirit”, it is important to remember that the workplace remains “a workplace”. As well as the obvious health and safety considerations, employers may wish to ensure that there are sensible limits on decorations etc in the office. The large flashing warbling Santa might be acceptable in someone’s own home, but within the office environment it may be less so. Employers must tread the difficult line between ensuring that the festivities can be marked appropriately while not being viewed as a Dickensian character.

The Party

The area which often causes the greatest concern to employers in advance (and employees afterwards) is the “Christmas Party”. Recent reports have highlighted that some employers are turning away from holding the traditional party for fear of the enduring disruption to the business in dealing with troublesome incidents after the event. Common problems encountered by employers include absenteeism, staff fights and claims of harassment, all frequently brought on by an excess of alcohol.

Whilst, traditionally, Christmas parties have been perceived as the event at which employees let their hair down and certain standards of behaviour can be relaxed, in fact the issues which present themselves to employers generally apply to all work socials. Worrying statistics indicate that the majority of employers surveyed had, at some point, required to dispense with the services of an employee after a social event due to conduct issues.

Whilst employers are wise to be aware of the extent to which they can be liable for any problematic occurrences, it would seem to be overkill to impose a complete moratorium. Indeed managed properly, such events can have a very positive effect on employee relations, particularly in the current financial climate.

Staff recreational activities organised and paid for (in whole or in part) by the employer are generally considered to come within the scope of an employee's course of employment. As such, an employer has responsibilities towards their employees regarding such events, including ensuring their safety. It is therefore necessary for employers to ensure that all staff are aware that the same rules apply to work social events as apply in the workplace. Some employers have effected this by way of a specific policy on social events, however it may be easier to include reference to social events in existing policies such as those dealing with conduct, equal opportunities or harassment.

An employer may also be minded to emphasise the point prior to a specific event by means of a company wide email. Provided this is suitably worded, this usually suffices without appearing to be too heavy handed. In addition, if an employer does not have behaviour at social events covered by existing policies, then a quick fix solution would be to send such an email around before the event in question.

The Aftermath?

Probably the greatest fear for an employer is an accusation of sexual harassment (often arising out of tasteless jokes and drunken groping). However, employers should also be aware of the risks of claims for harassment on other unlawful grounds including age, disability, sexual orientation and religion and belief. Any post party grievances must be treated seriously and should never be just dismissed as conduct becoming of a night out.

If a grievance is received, it should be dealt with promptly and sensitively in the usual manner. Whilst, at this time of year holiday absences may slow the process down somewhat, employers will still be expected by the Employment Tribunal to have acted without unreasonable delay as required in terms of the ACAS Code. Equally, any disciplinary action should be conducted promptly and fairly. Knee-jerk reactions (even when there are witnesses to the alleged event) are always to be avoided as dismissals in such circumstances are unlikely to ever be considered “fair” due to the lack of process.

Employers may also want to consider limiting the amount of alcohol to be consumed at events. Tribunals have in the past acknowledged that by providing staff with copious amounts of alcohol at social events employers have contributed to employee misconduct and this can be taken into account as a mitigating factor.

Other considerations are employee sensibilities in terms of religion and belief. Employers will need to ensure that dietary requirements are fully catered for and should try to ensure that not all social occasions are alcohol centred, so that those employees who are prohibited from drinking on religious grounds do not feel excluded from every event.

Overall, appropriate preparation and management is the key to ensuring that December is a month full of positive experiences and that negative repercussions are avoided. If everyone remembers that it is a time of goodwill to all then (mild) hangovers, a need to consider a diet and return/swap that unwanted present should be the only immediate January concerns.