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Tackling the pitfalls of Christmas cheer at work

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On the first day of Christmas, my employees said to me, let’s hold an office party,

On the second day of Christmas, my clients sent to me two bottles of sherry, and an office party

On the third day of Christmas, my secretary said to me, I’m taking three days sick leave, two bottles of sherry, and an office party....

A light-hearted reworking of an old favourite for the business owner, but behind it lies a timely warning on the pitfalls for the unwary employer at Christmas, says Alexandra Dean, employment expert with Chelmsford-based solicitors Gepp & Sons.

Bribery, health and safety, sexual harassment, discrimination and disciplinary action may not be top of any business checklist in the final run-up to Christmas, but the impact of office parties and generous clients could leave employers feeling distinctly un-festive.  

Whether it’s the Christmas party at the restaurant around the corner, or an informal get together in the office, employers need to set out guidelines and take precautions before the event.  If the party is in the office, then limiting the amount of alcohol can be a good idea.  It’s not just about locking up the stationery cupboard and disconnecting the photocopiers, there’s also health and safety to consider.  In one instance, an employer was found to be liable when an employee was injured after falling during some drink-fuelled dancing.   

That’s because employers have an overriding duty to safeguard the welfare of all their staff, whether it’s at their desk or during the annual Christmas knees-up, which is likely to be regarded as work-related.  Setting out what is acceptable behaviour before the event is the safe route, and also making clear that any rule-breaking will be viewed as misconduct to be dealt with through the companies' disciplinary procedures.

Another risk once tongues are loosened by drink is sexual harassment, and unwanted advances by one colleague to another could lead to an employment tribunal, with the employer liable for not providing adequate protection for an employee.  It’s another area that should be covered by a strong policy and clear attitude at management level that spells out it’s unacceptable.

Managing diversity in the workplace is another important area to be managed, when dealing with a Christian festival with a workforce that may have different cultural or religious beliefs.  No employees should be pressurised to attend Christmas-related events if they don’t want to on religious grounds. 

And then there’s the generous bottles of wine or bubbly changing hands between customers and suppliers.  But with the Bribery Act lying in wait to trap the unwary, it’s a good idea to check your internal policies and if necessary remind all staff to record any gifts, whatever the value, in the hospitality and gift register. (And if you haven’t yet got a register, now’s the time to start!)   

And finally, there’s the huge surge in workers throwing a ‘sickie’ that conveniently ties in with Christmas shopping, putting up the tree, or simply recovering from the office party the day before.  Again, employees should be made aware of a clear policy, and reminded that abuse of the system will result in disciplinary action.  Every employer has to assume absence is genuine, but employees who know that return to work interviews will be held and that absence management procedures will be pursued, are less likely to phone in sick after that late night.

It all adds up to a safer way to enjoy Christmas at work. 

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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