Rein it in | Christmas parties are prime territory for HR problems - here's how to avoid them

Christmas parties are prime territory for HR problems - here's how to avoid them

The annual office Christmas party is a great way for colleagues to let their hair down and bond with each other outside of the traditional work environment.

And for many, this year’s instalment might be the first Christmas party in several years - the nation was in lockdown in December 2020, and last December saw many festivities voluntarily cancelled due to rising cases of the Covid variant Omicron.

This, coupled with the fact that 2022 has seen higher levels of stress and burnout than the height of the pandemic – according to Gartner research – and there’s a very real risk that some employees might let their hair down a little too much.

In fact, a recent report by the CIPD identified that 1 in 10 workers knew of someone from their organisation who has either been dismissed or disciplined for inappropriate behaviour at the staff Christmas party.

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The most common reasons for disciplinary action were fighting (29%) or threatening behaviour (19%). Other commonly reported reasons for disciplinary action or dismissal included sexual harassment, (17%), bullying (12%) and ‘other inappropriate behaviour’ (7%), which has included unorthodox use of the office photocopier, amorous activity on company premises or insulting the boss.

One boss in Australia has even gone so far as to impose a list of 10 rules that staff must abide by at their festive do, ranging from the obvious such as “nothing illegal” and “know when to call it quits”, to directives such as not posting inappropriate photos of the night on social media, and avoiding sleeping with colleagues.

Andrea London, Partner at Winckworth Sherwood, explains that as we enter into the full swing of Christmas party season, employers who are not cognisant that they can be liable for the acts of employees committed “in the course of their employment”, which can well include work social events outside of work hours, such as the staff party – need to be reminded of this, and warned of the possible consequences.

London explains that employers should therefore be taking practical steps to prevent unacceptable behaviour taking place.

“A sensible starting point is to dismiss from the outset the notion that ‘anything goes’ at the office party”, says London.

“Staff need to be reminded in advance of any festivities that inappropriate behaviour will be dealt with in the same way as it would be during normal work time. Employees should also be reminded that those who wish not to get involved in work frolics should be let alone and not harassed about it.

“Care should be taken over such points of detail as the venue, menu and entertainment, which contain potential traps for employer. Matters such as the choice of venue, for example, may carry the potential for a complaint of unlawful discrimination. Check that the venue is accessible to any disabled employees. The menu and/or party games can also cause difficulties. Employees who observe religious rules/conventions involving not drinking may feel unable or extremely uncomfortable in attending an event where alcohol is served and drinking is openly encouraged (especially where it is to excess) or even distributed as prizes. Even the seemingly innocuous raffle may cause problems unless there is a variety of prizes. Keep an eye on the amount of alcohol which is drunk and ensure that non-alcoholic drinks are served. Ensure that there is no peer pressure on employees to drink.

“The party and its aftermath could lead to claims of unlawful harassment, which is defined broadly as “unwanted conduct which violates a person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment”.

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“Employers should vet external entertainers (e.g, comedians) and speakers to ensure that their comments and acts do not constitute harassment – which covers “words spoken”. There are potential health and safety considerations, particularly if the office party is held on the employer’s premises. The misuse of alcohol could be an aggravating factor in accidents in the workplace.

“Perhaps coincidentally, absenteeism increases in the run-up to Christmas. Employers need to ensure that staff are reminded of their obligations in relation to attendance and unauthorised absences should be dealt with as a disciplinary manner.”

London concludes: “Finally, if incidents occur it is obviously imperative that they are investigated promptly and thoroughly. The intervention of the Christmas break will not justify any failure to follow normal procedures and a failure or a delay in doing so, exposes the employer to the risks of claims for unfair dismissal based on delayed disciplinary investigations or further acts of unlawful discrimination if a prompt investigation into unlawful harassment does not take place.

"So please, this year, have a Merry Christmas – not a Messy Christmas!"

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