Christmas Party Health Warning

Posted on 7th November 2013

Christmas Party Health Warning

At this time of year thoughts are turning to last minute Christmas shopping, writing cards and of course the all important work “Christmas Do”.  Having worked in HR for over 10 years now I have seen and heard stories surrounding Christmas parties, some publishable some not, which have had HR implications.

This article is written not to put a dampner on your Christmas Festivities or to cry “Bah Humbug” but is simply meant as some guidance and things to consider if you are responsible for a Christmas Party of any kind.

A survey of 2,000 employees by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) revealed that one in ten workers know of someone from their organisation who has either been disciplined or dismissed for inappropriate behaviour at the staff Christmas party.   Of these, over a quarter (29%) said that the reason for the disciplinary action or dismissal was fighting and one-fifth (19%) said that threatening behaviour was to blame. The next most commonly reported reasons for disciplinary action or dismissal were sexual harassment (17%), bullying (12%) and other forms of discrimination (8%), for example on the grounds of disability or religion. Almost half (46%) said the reason was for ‘other inappropriate behaviour’, which could include unorthodox use of the office photocopier, extra curricular activity in the stationary cupboard or insulting the boss.   The most worrying is the harassment issue and this is a real issue and if an incident at the party triggers or is part of a serious harassment claim then you will be vicariously liable and need to take steps to protect yourself as below.  Another good solution here is to have a party to which partners are invited – this seems to keep things a bit more in control (and many companies have adopted this approach as a consequence).

So what does this tell us? The important point is to find a way of reminding staff that inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with in the same way as it would be during normal work time.   Ben Willmott from the CIPD  said: “People should feel able to relax and let their hair down, however it is a good idea for employers to remind their staff that inappropriate behaviour could land them in serious trouble and even lead to them losing their job in the case of serious misconduct. In the current economic environment with people under increasing pressure at work there is an added risk that people will drink too much, let off steam and do something they might regret in the sober light of the next morning.”

There has been talk of risk assessing Christmas parties but this may be extreme as any venue you go to should have done this but you may want to consider a form of risk assessment in terms of preventing or minimising the risk to your company’s reputation, you could do this by simply reminding all staff of their obligations and responsibilities even on Christmas nights out – whether funded by the employer or not. Groups of staff at non-funded parties can also cause employer difficulties, if they are recognisable as your employees.  You can do this verbally at the same time as publicising the date, or in writing to each person, or by posters, noticeboards, intranets etc. That way if anyone misbehaves, you are in a much clearer position if you were to take disciplinary action, as expectations have been set beforehand.

Giving some of these things some thought beforehand can ensure that your Christmas event is what it should be; a fun event and a chance to let your hair down.  From reading around various HR publications and forums here are some top tips:

Remember that your Christmas party is a work activity
As the employer, you are responsible for the safety and the actions of your staff at your Christmas party – just like with any other business activity. This applies whether you’re having a full-scale event or simply spending an evening at the local restaurant. A ‘works do’ is part of work life, and the same principles apply when it comes to looking after your staff.

Be careful what you promise
A couple of drinks and an informal chat with an employee at a party can easily lead to you promising things you didn’t really mean. It could be a new budget for a particular project or a hint at a promotion up the ladder. If these things do not materialize after the event you will have some disgruntled employees!

Make sure you take an ‘inclusive’ approach
As in everyday life, discrimination (whether intended or not) on the basis of sexual orientation, race, gender, disability, religion etc is a definite no-no. If you allow employees to bring partners to the annual party, you must include same-sex partners. If you use an outside venue, make sure the building – and the dance floor – is accessible to wheelchair users. If you hire entertainment, be sure that it will not cause offence to members of your staff. Its details like these that can save or sink your reputation as an employer.

Have an observer
Choose one of your managers to act as a discreet ‘nanny’. If they observe someone drinking in excess or beginning to harass other staff, the observer can have a quiet word and remind that person of their responsibility to the company and to their fellow employees. It’s far better to do that than have a raft of complaints from disgruntled employees when you get back to the office. And most staff will respect your intervention in this way, if not at the time but afterwards.   Also, beware of the pitfalls of the free bar as an employer may be held responsible for drink-related disasters. For example, three employees from a well-known company, who were involved in an alcohol-induced fight, subsequently won their claim for unfair dismissal because the employer had provided the alcohol.

Wishing you all a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Emma Wynne and all the team at Gateway HR & Training Ltd

The material is not intended to provide, and does not constitute, legal or any other advice on any particular matter, and is provided for general information purposes only.

Emma Wynne Character
Written by:
Emma Wynne
Managing Director