Christmas: 'Tis the season to be careful

The festive season is fast approaching. But before you start hanging up the mistletoe and booking the dancing girls for the Christmas party, heed these words of warning from HR Headmistress Kate Russell.

by Kate Russell
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Christmas seems to be arriving earlier and earlier every year, and even though Christmas day is still over a month away yet, the start of November marks the start of the Christmas festivities for many businesses.

Christmas is a traditional time of year for celebration so it is right that everybodyshould enjoy the occasion. However, you should make sure that you don’t relax too much during this time and you remain vigilant with your policies and procedures.

1. Christmas parties

Christmas parties are a prime time for things to go wrong. And not just because you've cut yourself on tinsel/ electrocuted yourself on all those cute fairy lights/ stabbed yourself in the eye with a piece of holly/ fallen off the table while hanging up the decorations (you shouldn’t be standing on a table anyway) or developed a allergy to pine needles.
No! The type of problems I’m talking about are rather more mundanely legal. A Christmas event hosted or sponsored by an employer makes it work. Many employers forget that they can end up being liable for the actions and welfare of their employees at such functions. Today, I just want to remind you that if you’re thinking about having a Christmas social event, plan it carefully and in turn remind your employees of their responsibilities.

The aim of a Christmas party is to unwind and relax after a stressful year, but if you are considering providing a free bar to treat your employees, it may be wise to think again. You don’t have to remove alcohol from the occasion completely, but it’s all about controlling consumption and limiting risk. Too much festive spirit removes inhibitions and the main risk is some form of harassment or a punch-up, either of which does tend to spoil the fun.

The more boisterous you allow the party to become, the more likely it is that things will go wrong. Consider buying each of your employees an individual drink instead and make sure that there are plenty of soft drinks at the ready. Some cultures forbid the drinking of alcohol altogether, and have specific requirements about food.

Many religions prescribe certain animal or fish food products and vegetarianism for non-religious reasons has been a growing trend in the UK for 40 years, so remember to provide some interesting meat-free options. (By the way, speaking as a vegetarian of some 30 years standing, please don’t assume that veggies want to have cheese or cream in every food item offered. You wouldn’t believe how often it happens and how boring it is.)

Issue guidelines to employees ahead of the Christmas party. These should set out your standards on fighting, excessive alcohol consumption, inappropriate behaviour and harassment, to name just a few. This could be in a letter, an email, or a poster pinned up on the notice board, but you should remind employees in advance that the party is a work-based event and that workers are expected to comply with the accepted standards of conduct in your workplace. This may seem like a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but outlining your expectations could save you a lot of pain later on.

This is also a good opportunity to remind staff of your procedures relating to sickness absence. Sending out an email in advance of the party which reminds them that they are expected to attend work the following day (unless they have booked annual leave) is a good idea. Not surprisingly, the morning after your Christmas party is a prime time for employees to phone in sick, particularly if the festivities take place on a 'school night'. You should not tolerate any unauthorised absence. If there is no adequate explanation for a worker’s absence then it should be treated as unauthorised and subject to the disciplinary process like any other unauthorised absence.

2. Annual leave at Christmas

Many businesses close between Christmas and the New Year which solves many holiday squabbles. But if your business is open over Christmas, you may have conflicting holiday requests from a number of employees. Adopt a ‘first come, first served’ system to avoid any unfairness. That said, do remember that outright and unconsidered refusals to accommodate religious beliefs and family requirements may constitute discrimination, so do take steps to think things through and be able to justify your decision. Call us if you get stuck.

3. Christmas bonuses

The effects of the recession are still biting, and as a way of cutting costs you might be considering scrapping Christmas bonuses (if you offer them) altogether. However, if your employees’ contract of employment states that they have a right to a bonus, then you will be required to pay. Bear in mind that if you have paid Christmas bonuses for a number of years then there may well be an implied contractual right to a bonus payment, even if this has not been stated in the contract. Therefore there will be a reasonable expectation that employees will be receiving one this year.

If you decide not to make the payment, talk to those affected and explain why bonuses are not being paid this year. If you would only like to give bonuses to some employees then you should make sure that your reasons for doing so are not discriminatory or made in bad faith.

Every year I remind my clients of the hazards of Christmas and every year I’m told what a fearful old grump I am. And every year without fail someone has to be rescued from an HR festive foul-up. So take my advice and let me close by wishing you a very enjoyable party, completely free of problems!

Kate Russell is the MD of Russell HR Consulting 

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