The Christmas season is upon us once again bringing with it the potential for a number of HR headaches, not least in the planning and holding of the office Christmas party. In this article we consider some of the employment issues which the festive season brings and how best to tackle them.

The office Christmas party – the risks

Social events such as the office Christmas party are an excellent way of thanking staff for their work throughout the year and spending time with colleagues outside of the work environment can help to develop team spirit. However, as with any social event, there is a risk of people over-stepping the mark - especially when levels of alcohol loosen tongues and standards of work behaviour.

It is important to remember that, regardless of when or where the office party takes place, the event will still be considered to be ‘in the course of employment’ and employers’ obligations to staff remain in full force. Additionally, employers may be liable for the acts of their employees so care needs to be taken if employees start making inappropriate comments after a few drinks. This is especially as the most likely complaints following an office party usually relate to sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination.

Planning ahead

Employers also need to think carefully about their staff’s other commitments when planning the time and format of the party. For example, some staff will have childcare commitments and may not be able to attend a particularly late while others may have religious commitments on particular evenings. Always check out the accessibility of the venue for disabled staff and don’t forget to invite staff who are currently away from the office – on maternity leave, for example.

When deciding on the menu, make sure you have considered religious and cultural requirements for staff and have non-alcoholic drinks available. Finally, consider your duty of care to employees in terms of them getting home safely. Give some thought to whether there is transport easily accessible for everyone.

The planning stage can also be used to remind staff of your expectations at the party. You can set out the standards of behaviour which you expect and forewarn them that any inappropriate behaviour and unwanted conduct will be dealt with as if it had happened during work time and managed under your policies. At any time of the year, but particularly Christmas, it is worth reviewing your policies on disciplinary action, grievances, equal opportunities, discrimination, bullying and harassment, drug and alcohol misuse, etc. If you haven’t done that for this season – make it a New Year’s Resolution to review them in January!

Post party headaches

Finally, consider how you will deal with any ‘after the event’ issues. If any complaints/grievances are received, these will need to be dealt with in accordance with your policies and considered with the same level of seriousness as if they had taken place at the office. You should also inform staff that disciplinary action will be taken in the event of non-attendance at work the following day (subject of course to genuine illness), or if they turn up to work still under the influence.

The Christmas party should be an event enjoyed by all – including HR – and prior planning will help employers put on a party which is memorable for the right reasons!