The office Christmas party – festive fun or a trap for the unwary

“Christmas comes but once a year . . . “

Are there only 24 days to go before Christmas?  Is it really all of twelve months since the last office Christmas party?

One might have hoped that with Christmas coming round every year (and always on 25 December, just fancy that?), employers (and employees) would by now have familiarised themselves with the common-sense rules which assure the maximum enjoyment of this annual office extravaganza, with the minimum of strife.  But in case you (or they) haven’t, here’s our timely guide to a trouble-free office Christmas party.

“You are cordially invited…”

Christmas is still regarded as a Christian holiday – notwithstanding that, at times of such conspicuous excess, it bears a close resemblance to the Pagan feast of Saturnalia!  Nonetheless, invitations should be issued to all, regardless of religious belief.  Equally, you should never insist that all staff attend.

Do think about the diversity of your workforce – and not merely by reference to their religious allegiances.  Check, for example, that the venue you are considering has proper disabled access.

At risk of sounding a Scrooge-like note, bear in mind that if you have agency staff on long-term placement with you and you invite them to your Christmas party (and, let’s face it, who wouldn’t?) you are increasing the risk that they will later argue that they should be regarded as your employees!  Ouch!

“Secret Santa”

Warn employees about offensive or inappropriate gifts.  Exotic lingerie and waxwork anatomical representations can so easily give rise to complaints of bullying, harassment and sex discrimination – for which the employer can be just as liable as the employee who exercises poor judgment.

“Eat, drink and be merry”

Beware the “free bar”.  If you don’t exercise some control over alcohol intake you may well find yourself accused of condoning excessive consumption – and the problems which flow from alcohol-fuelled bad behaviour.  Make it clear beforehand that bad behaviour (alcohol-fuelled or otherwise) is not acceptable.  And be prepared to intervene if it looks as though an employee is becoming, as Private Eye would put it, “tired and emotional”.

You wouldn’t consume large quantities of alcohol on an empty stomach – well, we hope you wouldn’t.  If alcohol is liberally available then make sure that it is matched by equally liberal quantities of non-alcoholic drinks and, above all food.    Wags may remark that the potato in a bag of crisps counts as one of their five-a-day, but the ability of a bag of crisps to absorb alcohol is strictly limited.

“Ballroom Blitz”

Beware the physical energy of a Christmas boogie that descends into a bar-room brawl.  Make it clear beforehand that scrapping – in jest or otherwise – is simply unacceptable. Whilst it is highly likely that you would be able (after following due process, of course) to fairly dismiss an employee who was involved in a fight, or who was the perpetrator of an act of harassment, discrimination or assault, any satisfaction you derived from a successful dismissal would lose its shine if the victim of the bad behaviour decided to launch an Employment Tribunal claim which named both you and the perpetrator as joint respondents.

“I love you…!”

Make sure your senior management team, aglow with the goodwill of the event, don’t use the forum of the office Christmas party to get involved in conversations about career prospects, salary increases, performance or promotion.  A promise is a promise – and whilst alcohol may suffuse a manager’s recollection, a wily employee who has prudently spent the evening sipping mineral water may claim to have an unclouded recollection of what was discussed.

“Carriages at midnight”

Remember that you may well have some responsibility for ensuring that your employees get home safely – particularly if you have been liberal in the availability of alcohol.  It’s nearly 50 years years since the original introduction in 1967 of drink-driving legislation, and drinking and driving is generally regarded as anti-social, but a reminder to employees would not go amiss.  Depending where your Christmas event is held – and the time it finishes – you may even want to think in terms of laying-on transport.

And do remember that your responsibilities don’t end as your employees pirouette comically out of the front door of the venue.  The journey home may well be considered an extension of your work-related event.  As a result, bad behaviour on the way home may be not only a matter in which you have a disciplinary interest, but also a potential cause of liability courtesy of the complaint by the employee who is on the receiving end of the postprandial punch.

“Alka-Seltzer (other effervescent antacid pain relievers are available…)

When the invitations to the office Christmas party go out you should make clear at that time your expectations regarding attendance (or absence) the next day.  Your employees are entitled to know how the land lies when it comes to such matters as coming in late.  If you have been tolerant of “flexible” time-keeping in the past but are minded to have a change of policy, this needs to be clearly announced beforehand.

It is also probably timely for you to point out to employees the extent to which their social media activities on Facebook and the like, can be areas of legitimate interest to you as the employer.  As recently as August the Employment Appeal Tribunal decided against a British Waterways Board employee, Mr Smith (no, really, that was his name), who made derogatory comments on Facebook about his managers and his work.  Remind employees to be temperate and thoughtful about social media postings which refer to either managers or colleagues – whether they are comments, photos or voice recordings, all of which are so easily captured by mobile phones.

Only the more mature readers of this blog will know who Phyllis Diller was, but regardless of your age you will appreciate what she meant when she famously said “What I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day!”.

Richard Parr

Richard Parr
Partner
Employment team
RParr@LawBlacks.com
0113 227 9246

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