· Features

Festive foibles: Employment law perspectives on the office Christmas do

Employers must consider how the combination of a festive tipple, secret Santa and social media could make the event an HR nightmare

Getting the guest list right

Most guest lists will have been finalised long in advance to ensure that a venue can be booked well ahead of time, but there could be some last-minute additions to consider. Those on parental leave should not be excluded, and it is important to not limit any ‘plus ones’ to just husbands and wives – if partners are invited that should mean all partners. This will help to avoid any potential discrimination claims, particularly those relating to marital status or sexual orientation.

Even though freelancers are increasingly becoming a key part of the workforce, employers need to be wary about inviting them to team social events. Including consultants, freelancers or independent contractors could provide them with the evidence of integration they need to argue 'employee' status at a later date.

Picking the venue

If the party is taking place off site it is important to consider the location very carefully, in part to ensure that it is accessible and suitable for any employees with disabilities. Similarly, any allergies need to be considered when choosing a venue if food and drink is going to be provided. Some may be sufficiently serious as to amount to a disability, and in these circumstances a menu that effectively excludes those employees could amount to indirect discrimination.

Staff behaviour

One of the biggest concerns regarding the company Christmas party is staff conduct, and the employer’s liability for such conduct. As a starting point, if alcohol is being provided it is a good idea to limit either the amount available or the length of time the bar will continue to serve drinks ahead of time.

Equally, any disciplinary rules should be communicated and reiterated to all staff before the event. Managers in particular should be reminded of the standard of behaviour expected of them as senior individuals within the business, and should be advised not to be drawn into any conversations related to promotions, pay rises or any form of staff performance. These matters should be discussed formally at appraisals, or in private with the employee(s) in question.

Workplace relationships

Some long-term romantic relationships are actually borne out of the office Christmas party, and employers need to understand how to deal with these situations. The business may want to implement a workplace relationships policy making it clear that such relationships are either banned or must be declared to HR.

We’re increasingly seeing US-style ‘love contracts’ being introduced in UK workplaces too, which establishes workplace guidelines for romantically-involved co-workers, and limits the employer’s liability in the event of the relationship ending. Whatever approach is taken, the aim should be to reduce complaints and risk around unfair treatment, favouritism or abuse of power, as well as discrimination and sexual harassment.

As a rule, all employees should be made aware of the company’s harassment and equalities policies and educated on what constitutes sexual harassment, but this is especially important before large work events. If any sexual harassment claims arise, either at the party or following it, these should be dealt with urgently rather than being left for the New Year.

The morning after the night before

Employers should make it clear how the company will react to absence or latecomers the day after the office Christmas party. Will the usual rules apply? Offering an incentive such as a later start time or a complimentary breakfast may encourage staff to come in.

Ahead of the office Christmas bash every HR team should be prepared for the worst-case scenario: complaints and grievances that are made in response to bad behaviour the evening before. All employers should ensure that managers are aware of how complaints like these should be escalated, and that there are sufficient grievance processes in place to deal with any issues that may arise.

David Greenhalgh is lead employment partner at London law firm Joelson