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How to Avoid Calamitous Christmas Parties

Friday, 5 December 2014

Employers often reward employees with office parties at the end of the year. An office party during the festive season can provide an organisational morale boost and offer a way to thank employees for their hard work during the year. It can also create a degree of social cohesion among employees by providing a glimpse of colleagues’ lighter sides in a relaxed social atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the nature of an office Christmas party is such that there also a number of legal pitfalls – especially where alcohol is concerned – which many HR professionals agree are surprisingly difficult to manage.

What are the Potential Office Party Pitfalls?

Issues may arise as early as the invitations to the party being sent out. Insofar as Christmas is a Christian holiday, employees should not be pressured into attending if they are not inclined to attend on religious grounds. In the same way, many employees will have familial responsibilities outside of work so exerting pressure on any employees to attend is generally not advisable.

In terms of placing office Christmas decorations, as long as risk assessments are carried out in accordance with accepted standards then it should be rare that an employer will breach health and safety rules. Specifically, however, when putting up Christmas lights it will be rare that the employer’s insurance policy will cover damage caused by untested electrical equipment. As such, any festive lights should either be tested or made sure to be switched off and unplugged prior to the office emptying.

The Christmas party itself, and what occurs during it, is probably the biggest source of potential legal issues and claims. Given that Christmas parties will in most cases be seen to be a legal extension of the office environment, employers will remain liable for acts of assault, discrimination, and harassment carried out at the party. Therefore, all employees should have very clear guidance on what is not acceptable behaviour during the event, making clear that disciplinary procedures will be followed despite the seeming festive nature of the party.

Preparation and Alcohol Awareness is the Key to Successful Office Christmas Parties

As disciplinary procedures must be followed – for example in the event of employees fighting, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and/or illegal substances, inappropriate behaviour, sexist or racist remarks – it is best practice to ensure that guidelines are given to employees beforehand. This should highlight obvious potential issues associated with excessive alcohol consumption, especially if there is a free bar.

Placing restrictions on the amounts of free alcohol to be consumed is an easy way to reduce the risk of legal problems. Alternatively, managers should be asked to take responsibility for recommending that employees lay off the drink if they seem to be overdoing it.

It should be noted that a free bar in itself has been seen at tribunal as the employer condoning the effects of excessive alcohol consumption. Employers concerned about this may wish to consider avoiding a free bar altogether to prevent various problems arising. Organisers should also remember to provide an abundance of alcohol-free drinks in order to avoid discriminating against employees who, for various reasons, cannot consume alcohol.

For specialist advice in the run up to the festive season contact Aneil Balgobin via e-mail or by telephone on 0207 611 4848.

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