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Christmas parties – How to Avoid HR Issues At Your Christmas Party

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As an employer your works Christmas party is very likely to be considered as work time. But with high spirits comes a much higher risk of staff acting inappropriately towards their colleagues and causing HR issues at your christmas party.

So it is very important that you plan your christmas party to minimise the risk of staff misconduct, grievances and other HR issues, whilst of course encouraging your staff to relax and enjoy themselves in the festive season.

This article aims to help you avoid HR issues at your christmas party by:

  1. a)    Highlighting the types of HR issues and grievances staff may have; and
  2. b)    Showing you how to minimise the risk of misconduct and HR issues at your christmas party

It’s a christmas party so why would staff have grievances?

The main cause of grievances and HR issues at your Christmas party is when a member of staff feels that you, the Company or a colleague may have discriminated against them. Typically, this happens when they feel unfairly treated or harassed due to their:

  • Age
  • Disability
  • Gender assignment
  • Marriage and civil partnership
  • Pregnancy and maternity
  • Race
  • Religion or belief
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation

If a member of staff feels discriminated against at your Christmas party they can take the issue to an Employment Tribunal. They could then be awarded compensation for any financial loss as well as an uncapped amount for injury to feelings

How can you minimise this risk?

To help you avoid such HR issues at your christmas party (and a bad start to 2013), I have put together some examples of what you should consider:

  1. Do not make attendance at your Christmas party compulsory. It may clash with non-Christian religious dates, giving some employees an argument for discrimination on religious grounds.  Compulsory attendance may also amount to sex discrimination, as there may be an argument to say that more male employees may be able to attend your works christmas part due to them not having the main childcare responsibilities.
  2. Don’t forget to invite any employees who are currently on maternity/paternity leave to avoid a claim for pregnancy or maternity discrimination. All employees have a right to equal treatment so invite them all, including fixed term temporary workers, part-time staff and agency workers.
  3. If you have under 18s working for you consider where you hold the works christmas party.  If you decide to hold it at a bar where no under 18s are allowed this may be age discrimination.  If there is no age restriction at the venue, remind them they should not be drinking alcohol.
  4. Whilst most venues nowadays will be fully accessible for any disabled employees, bear in mind that disabled employees must not be treated less favourably and ought to be encouraged, and able, to attend the works christmas party in the same way as non-disabled employees.
  5. Before the event, remind staff about company HR policies concerning discrimination, bullying and harassment and equal opportunities. Forewarn them that inappropriate behaviour at the christmas party will be disciplined in the same way as during work hours.
  6. Avoid fuelling drunken antics, which may constitute misconduct warranting disciplinary action.  Don’t provide free drinks for your staff all night, or if you do, ensure that the bar tenders at the venue are vigilant and do not serve already intoxicated employees.
  7. Bear in mind that alcohol can often fuel unwanted sexual advances and this could constitute sexual harassment.  Employers must ensure that they are not seen as condoning such behaviour and if they witness anything on the night, should take action.

Christmas parties are an opportunity for you to show staff that you appreciate their work and can be a great way of boosting staff morale. However, no matter how much of the year is spent planning the festive night out, you can find yourself managing the HR issues Christmas parties often cause well into the New Year.

Based on my 15 years of experience in employment/HR law I have listed below some common problems such parties create – and tips on how to avoid them!

·         What if an employee gets drunk at the party and wants to drive home?

You may think that you do not have any responsibility for what an employee chooses to do on a night out. However, you do have a “duty of care” towards employees and as it is an event organised by your company you should take some responsibility and, at the very least, encourage your employees not to drink drive.

Think about the timing of the event so that people are able to use public transport and, to be particularly helpful, you could circulate telephone numbers of local taxi firms beforehand. If you really feel like pushing the boat out this year you may decide to lay on free transport at the end of the night.

·         How do you avoid the situation where people don’t turn up for work the day after the party?

Unfortunately, there will always be occasions where someone over indulges on the night of the party and doesn’t come into work the following day, however there are some practical preparations that can be made to reduce sickness absences to a minimum. Apart from the obvious steps to prevent people getting too drunk, such as making sure there are plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and food, you may also want to remind staff in advance that unless there is a genuine reason for their absence it will be considered to be unauthorised and may lead to disciplinary action being taken against them.

Of course you could always organise the party on a Friday if you don’t usually open on a Saturday!

·         What if you offend employees of other religion and beliefs by having a Christmas party?

Just because the party is being held around this time of year does not mean that it is solely a Christian event. As I said at the start of this article Christmas parties are usually a thank you to staff for their work over the year rather than a celebration of specific religions. On the whole, they tend to be secular celebrations where staff are given the opportunity to socialise with each other outside the work environment. However, it would be wise to try and accommodate specific requirements which you are aware of such as having soft drinks available to those who do not consume alcohol and having a vegetarian option on the menu for those who do not eat meat.

·         What if a member of staff is subjected to sexual harassment by another member of staff during the party?

In practical terms there is little difference between an employee being harassed at the Christmas party or during normal working hours. Social events outside work, organised by the employer will usually be viewed by courts and tribunals as being an extension of work to which the usual rules on discrimination will apply.

Employers will be responsible for discriminatory acts carried out by their employees unless they are able to show that they have made reasonable attempts to prevent such treatment. This will apply equally to all types of harassment (including race, religion, age, sexual orientation etc), not just sexual harassment.

You should have up to date HR policies on bullying, harassment and discrimination (especially in light of the Equality Act 2010 which was implemented in October this year) and staff should be made aware in advance of the penalties for breaching these policies. If any discriminatory behaviour does take place, act swiftly to ensure these issues are properly investigated and resolved.

(iv)      To summarise

Hopefully you have found the above helpful or at the very least it has given you areas to think about before the big night. However, if you have already held your party and need advice on any problems caused, or need advice on any other HR/employment issue, please contact us.

Be mindful of the above and you can help ensure the evening is fun for all.

You will also minimise the risk of misconduct or HR issues resulting in grievances, or even more severely, a Tribunal claim.

This can not only cost you in terms of compensation awards, but also in the extensive management time required to address any concerns.

By sticking to my recommendations you should ensure that everyone is able to enjoy the works Christmas party this year without any HR issues and that 2013 can get off to a positive start with boosted staff morale.

For a FREE confidential chat about how to plan effectively and reduce HR issues at your christmas party call our Head of Employment Law Robert Tice on 01332 226 149 or contact us


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