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HR issues you should consider when planning the office party

With many companies planning their Christmas parties as early as January, festive planning is now a year-round task. The opportunity to let your hair down and enjoy casual drinks with the rest of your colleagues may be an exciting prospect – but there are HR issues to consider. 

Naturally, as the Christmas party draws near the anticipation can become overexcitement in some cases, which can lead to some workers over-indulging and becoming a bit too merry. 

Whilst no-one wants to play the Grinch and stop people from enjoying themselves, it is worth reminding colleagues that the Christmas party is essentially an extension of the workplace and the same rules and expectations apply. 

The potential problems

Although the party may take place outside of the workplace and normal office hours, there remains the risk that an employer will be liable for the actions of its staff.

Unfortunately, consuming high volumes of alcohol can be the catalyst for serious legal issues, with incidents of discrimination or harassment not uncommon; people can sometimes act out of character in a way they would never dream of when sober. 

For those eager at first to calm any workplace nerves, the availability of alcohol and the relaxed social environment may offer comfort but soon festivities can easily spill over, and sexual harassment is a common issue that may ensue as a result. 

Accusations of discrimination on the grounds of age, race or sexual orientation can also occur – I’m sure we can all picture the type of unsavoury scenario described. 

Protect your organisation 

After a few too many drinks, emotions can become heightened and this can create all sorts of issues when out with work colleagues. 

If there are any existing workplace tensions then these can be strained further, as inebriated individuals decide to raise the issue with other members of staff, which can quickly escalate into a verbal or physical confrontation. 

This type of unacceptable behaviour could lead to claims for potentially unlimited compensation, not to mention the significant amount of time and effort senior management must invest into the subsequent investigation and disciplinary process. 

If the back to work blues weren’t already bad enough in January, these anxieties can be enhanced when employment lawyers are called to deal with an incident from the Christmas party. 

There are several steps that organisations should follow to avoid becoming that client: 

  • Don’t leave anybody out – every member of staff should be invited to the Christmas party, regardless of whether they are ill or on leave, as not doing so could result in claims of discrimination;
  • When employees can bring partners, be sure not to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and don’t assume all partners will be of the opposite sex;
  • Ensure that you have an equal opportunities/anti-harassment policy in place;
  • Remind workers before the party that the same code of conduct applies, and that any instances of harassment, discrimination or violence will not be tolerated under any circumstances;
  • Tell employees to enjoy themselves and have a good time, but remind them that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary action;
  • Brief hired entertainers to help ensure they avoid telling any racist, sexist or offensive jokes. Employers have a duty to protect employees from any unwanted conduct and could be liable for harassment claims;
  • Consider limiting the bar tab. Providing limitless amounts of alcohol to employees, without monitoring who is drinking what is not only irresponsible, it can also increase the likelihood of a serious issue occurring;
  • Consider appointing a senior, responsible employee to stay sober, monitor behaviour and step in if necessary.

Festive gifts or bribery?

It is important that organisations keep a close eye on the gifts they purchase for other clients and businesses, as there could be potential liability under the Bribery Act 2010. 

Failing to prevent bribery in the workplace is strict liability, and employers must show that it has ‘adequate procedures’ in place to successfully defend against such a case. 

Regardless of size, all organisations should have policies in place to remind employees of what is acceptable, as liability can arise from both offering and receiving bribes. 

Of course, reasonable gifts and hospitality, such as a hamper or invitation to lunch, should not be a problem, but if employees are suddenly flown out for a sunny Christmas in the Bahamas, then questions will quickly be raised! 

Exercise caution when organising 

Tina Chnadler orginser of christmas parties

If you have been given the task of organising the work Christmas party, it’s important to exercise caution when booking the event. 

It may be tempting to go all out and impress colleagues by arranging a free bar in a venue that stays open until the early hours, however by doing this you are encouraging staff to drink excessively, which could create issues. 

Not only does it increase the likelihood of unacceptable behaviour occurring, but it could present its own health and safety challenges, as intoxicated staff may become too drunk to take care of themselves properly. 

Remember, an organisation has a responsibility to look after the wellbeing of its staff – not to mention its own reputation – so providing guests with limitless alcohol wouldn’t be a smart move. 

Avoid the post-party dread…

A lot of the major legal issues faced after a work Christmas party can be easily avoided – the vast majority stem from bad choices made by an organisation and its employees. 

Giving people the option to drink as much as they can, free of charge, can send out the wrong message, putting staff at risk of injury or worse. 

I’m sure there are a lot of people who have experienced the effects of over-indulgence and there’s nothing worse than waking up the next day filled with dread about what was said or done the night before. 

In some serious cases, these drunken actions can result in a claim being brought against the company or person involved, so it’s important to remind people of their responsibilities beforehand. 

If you require legal guidance or advice surrounding Christmas parties, contact an experienced team of lawyers for assistance.

by Tina Chander, partner & head of employment law, Wright Hassall

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