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Top Tips to avoid the perils of the office Christmas party

Christmas will be upon us before we know it, and unfortunately for HR and managers, this can often be something of a headache. From ensuring appropriate dress and conduct at Christmas work events, to the more mundane tasks of dealing with competing holiday requests, to potential discrimination claims arising out of the format and timing of parties, the potential for disputes is huge.

We don’t want to be seen as party poopers, but not a year goes by without the Employment Team at SA Law having to advise a client on a problem arising at their Christmas party. From alcohol fueled brawls, to complaints of sexual harassment, to drunken promises of pay rises and promotions, the types of claims are wide (but a common denominator is usually alcohol!). In fact, reports suggest 90% of employers have experienced an employment issue arising from the Christmas party, and 10% of employees know someone who has been either disciplined or dismissed for an incident as a result.

We have set out below our ‘top 10’ hints and tips for dealing with the Christmas office party in a way that reduces your chances of a post-event headache (well at least one caused by legal issues as opposed to a hangover).

  1. Plan ahead: Ensure the arrangements for the location and timing of the party are inclusive. Don’t forget to invite employees on maternity or other types of leave. Time the event so that employees are able to attend (eg if you have a number of observant Jewish employees, you should avoid a Friday night party). Make sure the venue is accessible for disabled employees. Ensure that employees with specific dietary requirements are catered for. Don’t make employees feel compelled to attend.
  2. Set expectations: Contrary to popular opinion, the fact that the office party is out of work hours and at an external venue does not mean that employers can wash their hands of the consequences. An employer can be held liable for their employees’ actions. Ahead of the party remind employees of the standards of behaviour expected from them. Guidance might be in the form of a policy dealing with conduct, or an email. No-one wants to dampen the Christmas spirit, but confirming expectations ahead of the party can offer you, the employer, some protection in the event that things don’t go to plan.
  3. Duty of care: You have a duty of care to your employees (and potentially to other road-users). If possible, ahead of the party assist with transport arrangements, such as putting on coaches or mini buses, or assisting with taxi bookings. At the very least encourage employees to make arrangements for their travel home ahead of the party.
  4. Limit alcohol: As mentioned above, alcohol is often the root of the problem. Ensure that a range of non-alcoholic drinks is available. A free bar might sound like a great perk, but inevitably this leads to greater volumes of alcohol being consumed and you may wish to avoid it. Taking the focus away from alcohol by providing food or entertainment is also advisable. Also be wary of employees attending work the next day who still might be under the influence of drink and take appropriate steps to assess the issue and to deal with it.
  5. Be social media savvy: With the rise in usage of mobile phones and social media, ensure that you have a Social Media Policy in place and that employees are familiar with what constitutes acceptable usage. This should help to avoid the posting of inappropriate pictures or comments during or after the party, which could cause offence to colleagues.
  6. Vet the entertainment: Whilst entertainment can be great, vet it in advance to ensure that it is appropriate and will not cause offence.
  7. Be careful with the venue’s employees too: It’s not just your own employees you need to worry about. Be careful as to how they treat the venue’s employees. It’s not been unknown for bar staff to be groped and spoken to inappropriately. Again, bear in mind that you can be liable for your employees’ actions.
  8. Appoint a watchman: Having a suitably senior designated person to watch over matters and ensure that things do not get out of hand is a sensible move if you can find someone willing to volunteer for the role. They can keep an eye on any rowdy behaviour and spot people who might be a risk to themselves or to others.
  9. Post party absenteeism and low productivity: Don’t expect miracles from the employees who do make it into work the next day. Dealing with employees who call in sick is more problematic. It’s advisable to let employees know that if they are absent without having booked the day as leave that the matter will be investigated and disciplinary action might be taken. If you feel that disciplinary action is warranted, follow your normal procedures and be careful not to make assumptions about the absence. Friday night parties can avoid this problem.
  10. Post party complaints: Deal with complaints in accordance with your grievance (and if appropriate, disciplinary) procedures. Take complaints seriously, and be careful not to dismiss out of hand things as ‘banter’ or ‘to be expected’. Given the party is an extension of the workplace it’s important not to be seen to be condoning inappropriate behaviour.

The vast majority of work parties do go smoothly of course, and a Christmas event can be a great and morale-boosting way to end the year. Following the tips above should ensure that you’re not one of those unfortunate employers having to make a call to their employment lawyer the morning after the night before.

© SA LAW 2017

Every care is taken in the preparation of our articles. However, no responsibility can be accepted to any person who acts on the basis of information contained in them alone. You are recommended to obtain specific advice in respect of individual cases.