Holiday parties can bring teams together and reward them for good work. But as inhibitions are lowered, there is a risk that not all employees will behave themselves.
If things do go wrong, there are legal, safety and reputational risks, according to David Jepps, employment partner at Keystone Law.
He told HR magazine: “Incidents at the Christmas party, that may have felt funny at the time, may well not look the same in the cold light of the next day. The absence of discretion could not only lead to friction between employees but also to dismissals where employees’ actions have themselves brought the employer’s reputation into disrepute.
“Employers also now have to manage the fact that what happens at the Christmas party may not stay at the Christmas party, particularly in a digital sense, given the widespread usage of social media.
“In an age when images and video can travel around the world in seconds, this can not only create a headache for HR but also could shine a very negative light on the employer.”
Problems often stem from employees overindulging in ‘Christmas spirit’, according CIPD membership director David D’Souza.
Speaking to HR magazine, he said: “Providing a free bar at a work event might seem generous, but this can also encourage excessive drinking and increase the likelihood of people behaving badly.
“Managers should encourage employees to drink responsibly, ensuring they don’t become unwell or disorderly, as well as offering a variety of non-alcoholic options. It helps keep those colleagues safe and also reduces the chances of them negatively impacting others.”
“Before the event, employers should clearly communicate the company’s policies on drugs and alcohol misuse and expectations of behaviour, as well as considering how employees can get home safely.”
At their worst, Christmas parties can be a hotbed for inappropriate behaviour and even sexual violence. Last year, a designer at furniture company Starplan won £18,857 at employment tribunal after being sexually harassed at the company’s Christmas party.
In another case judged this year, Crest Nicholson was found liable for sexual abuse of an employee after a male colleague raped her after the company Christmas party.
The tribunal found in November 2019, a site manager at house builder Crest Nicholson had harassed the woman and another female staff member during the work event, tried to kiss her in a taxi and then raped her in a hotel room.
Employers are responsible for the safety of their staff and must reinforce a zero-tolerance approach to harassment of any kind, according to Jepps.
He said: “Typical problems that arise each year include fighting, harassment and making unfortunate comments.
"It’s sensible for employers to have policies in place reminding employees what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour, and to communicate them during induction and regularly thereafter."
While having a drink and a dance might be a go-to option for the office Bash, D’Souza said accessibility issues should be taken into account.
He added: “Employers should be accommodating to employees with a disability or health condition, by considering event timings, venue and accessibility requirements.
“If the point of the event is to recognise the contributions of all, then taking some steps to make it as inclusive as possible makes absolute sense.”
Jepps said: “Discos are great but try to include other entertainment suitable for those who either can’t or don’t want to dance.
“Scheduling Christmas celebrations at lunchtime also allows scope for those with childcare responsibilities to participate."
Employers can make Christmas parties more inclusive to people of all faiths by making attendance optional, and including non-alcoholic, Halal, Kosher and vegetarian options. HR could also ensure giving and receiving gifts is not mandatory.
Binna Kandola, co-founder of business psychology firm Pearn Kandola, added that inclusive language is important.
He told HR magazine: “You want your party to be a ‘happy holidays’ celebration as that way, no one is left out.
“It is seen as a better term to use than say ‘happy Christmas’ because there are other holidays that take place at the same time, like Hanukkah.
“The best way to avoid any pitfalls though is to know your audience, as it would be better to say the name of the specific holidays that they will be taking. It’s far more personal and shows you take an interest in them and will be seen as more inclusive.”