Whilst we have all been amused by tales about what happens at our Christmas parties, as an employer you are ultimately responsible for your employees’ behaviour at these and other social events. So how can you spell out what is not acceptable so that you don’t have lots of problems to deal with the next day?
A step too far:
Whilst most of us know how to behave at a work Christmas party, some will take the phrase “Let your hair down” a bit too far. For example, at one event we know about, an employee who became a little worse for wear at the free bar, rather than going home to sleep it off, decided to jump on a table and “treat” everyone to a full striptease. Although his antics have since gained legendary status amongst colleagues, his employer certainly wouldn’t want to be embarrassed in public like that again. These things can lead to reputational damage for any employer and won’t make you welcome at the venue again.
Whilst party policies may seem Scrooge-like, they are a valuable precaution for employers and demonstrate that reasonable action has been taken to protect employees and members of the public.
Things to think about:
Don’t insist that all staff attend the party. Christmas is a Christian holiday, so do not pressure someone to attend if they do not want to on religious grounds. If the event is out of hours, remember also that some people have family responsibilities that may prevent them from coming.
Remember that Secret Santa presents should not be offensive – for example saucy lingerie that is hilarious to the giver, but not the recipient, have sparked complaints in the past.
It’s a popular misconception that Christmas decorations breach health and safety rules. As long as a proper risk assessment is carried out as to where and how decorations are sited, particularly those that can cause fire hazards, you will not normally fall foul of health and safety rules. However, your insurance may not cover damage caused by untested electrical equipment so make sure you switch off all the tree lights before going home.
Staff parties can be a great boost for morale, but where alcohol is readily available, drunken antics is just one of the problems you may face – it can also be the cause of aggressive, inappropriate or offensive language and behaviour.
However, regardless of whether the unacceptable conduct is directed towards one of your other employees or a third party, you are ultimately responsible. That’s because, like all work-related social events, your Christmas party is an extension of the workplace.
In one tribunal case, three employees got drunk and had a fight after seven hours of drinking at a free bar supplied by the company. They successfully argued that their dismissal was unfair. A relevant factor was that the employer had provided a free bar, and had not issued any guidance in advance of the party, and so condoned their behaviour.
So make your Christmas list:
For this reason, it’s best to spell out in advance what you deem to be unacceptable behaviour before the event takes place. Don’t keep your fingers crossed that everything will be OK or vow to come down hard on anyone who steps out of line – it’s not worth the risk. Your expected standards of behaviour should be set out in advance of a work-related social event, setting out all the basics of what you require on the night. This should be given to everyone a day or two before the event, even if they aren’t attending – that way you are not singling anyone out.
Things to include are an explanation of what behaviour is unacceptable e.g. inappropriate or offensive language, unwanted advances to colleagues, drinking to excess. Make it clear that fighting, excessive alcohol consumption, use of illegal drugs, inappropriate behaviour, sexist or racist remarks and comments about sexual orientation, disability, age, or religion will not be tolerated and will result in disciplinary action, including dismissal.
Also think about potential risks of claims for sexual harassment, religious discrimination and post-party absenteeism.
You should also remember to include reminders about posting anything on social media that could bring the company into disrepute, which could be yet another headache for you as the employer the morning after.
…… and on a related topic, what to do in the aftermath of a party if a member of staff complains about a colleague’s inappropriate behaviour
Most of us in HR have had to deal with the aftermath of a Christmas party at some stage in our careers. Do not discipline any employees at the party itself. Send them home if necessary and deal with the incident the next working day.
No two cases are the same, but be prepared for complaints from your staff about the behaviour of their colleagues – what seemed like good fun at the time can seem very different the next day. So be prepared to ask your employees to use your grievance procedure so that you can be seen to take any complaints seriously.
You may need to ask for witness statements from other people involved, in which case you will need to appoint someone to do this for you. As a general rule, the person investigating any complaint of this nature should not be involved in any follow-up meetings
In summary, you will need to:
• Investigate the matter fully, holding investigation meetings where necessary;
• Consider all the relevant evidence;
• Come to a balanced, reasoned decision;
• Notify the employee raising the grievance of the outcome, in writing; and
• Give them the right of appeal if they don’t agree with your decision.
If the grievance proves to have merit, this could then mean you need to invoke the disciplinary procedure – so you can see why it’s so important to spell out the ground rules in the first place.
… and finally a reminder about tax.
There is a tax exemption for employee entertaining, but terms and conditions apply. The relief available is £150 per head including VAT, anything above this makes the whole amount a benefit in kind.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
GAIL WATSON, FCIPD
HR EXPERTS LTD, PART OF ADVO GROUP
Gail is an HR generalist specialising in employment law, TUPE and employee relations. After a long and successful career as an HR Director Gail is now an employer consultant delivering advice and support to SME and small corporates. Gail uses her wealth of experience to provide expert guidance in the complex area of HR helping to deliver workable solutions.