Office Christmas Parties - getting the balance right

Submitted by Mark on 10th December 2018

HR, employees, Christmas party, employment law, employment tribunal, moral

How does that Andy Williams classic go?

'It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling
You ‘be of good cheer!’

Ah - if only Christmas was as charming, innocent and sugar-coated as some would have us believe.  Take the office party for example.  As an employer, is this an event you look forward to with eager anticipation?  Or is it an occasion you dread, riddled with HR pitfalls, you hope your staff won’t fall into.

Of course, the office Christmas party provides a great opportunity to boost morale - to reward your people for their efforts over the past year, to give them all a chance to relax and to bond with their colleagues.  They can be great fun.

But then, they can also go so horribly wrong.  Office parties are fertile ground for any number of misdemeanours and mishaps - harassment, pranks that can be interpreted as bullying, inappropriate sexual behaviour, fights, vandalism.  I won’t depress you with a comprehensive list of potential party pitfalls.  But when things do go awry, the repercussions can reverberate way beyond the next day’s hangover.  Your HR department could be kept far busier in January than you would wish.  So what’s to be done?
Can an employee’s actions at your party – even when it falls outside ‘normal working hours’, and at an outside venue – be a cause for concern for HR? Or is it OK for everyone to go mad for once?

Prevention better than cure

If it’s a works ‘do’, then employment laws still apply, regardless of the venue.  As an employer, you could be held responsible for unsavoury incidents and even face tribunal claims. 

Of course, the root cause of 95% of these problems is that ol’ devil called alcohol.  Naturally, you don’t want to come across as a party-pooper, but you might consider reminding your people about what would constitute unacceptable behaviour.  You should also point out the probable consequences.

You can’t be responsible for your staff’s over-indulging, but there are preventative steps to take - 
- Limit the amount of alcohol available
- Make sure non-alcoholic drinks are available 
- Provide ample food
- Be inclusive.  Be considerate towards those who are tea-total or who don’t eat particular foods.
- Have you paid for a speaker or entertainer for the evening?  Make sure that their subject matter and material won’t cause offence.

Should you be doing even more to prevent disasters and unhappiness?  Should your HR department be prepared to involve themselves and carry out formal disciplinary proceedings?  Should you issue social bans?  Do office parties confuse the line between your employees’ free time and work time?

So what HR advice do we recommend?

Your Christmas Party can be great for morale.  It’s an opportunity for your valuable employees to enjoy being with each other - and with you - in a relaxed environment.  The investment for you, of a few bottles of wine, festive food, and a Christmas-themed venue, will give everyone a boost, as well as providing a kick-start into the new year.

Just send an email

So, our advice?  Simply, be sensible.  Before any company social event, email to everyone a brief, concise statement of company policy.  Nothing lengthy or condescending - just a straightforward reminder of acceptable protocols and boundaries.

If nothing else, your email will provide an ample demonstration that your business takes its duty of care seriously.  In case you’re worried about coming across as a crusty old curmudgeon, you can sign off the email, instructing your employees to ‘let your hair down and have fun’.

Like so many HR issues, It’s all about communication and balance.  Make sure your employees have fun and celebrate together, whilst remembering about respecting themselves and each other.

At Gravitas HR, we keep up to date with developments in Employment Law.  If you’re in any doubt about how to protect your company and your staff from festive season high jinks, then get in touch.  Remember - we’re here to help.

For straight-talking HR advice - 01604 763494
Or email - info@GravitasHR.co.uk