With December just around the corner, many businesses are looking forward to a month of annual leave, Secret Santa gifts, and the highly anticipated Christmas party.
However, the aftermath of the annual festive bash can cause more than a Prosecco-fuelled headache for employers, and can even create issues that can plague businesses long after the new year.
Local award-winning law firm Watkins & Gunn is urging employers to consider potential problems ahead of Christmas party season.
Lisa Guscott, Partner and Head of Employment & HR Services at Watkins & Gunn advises employers to approach Christmas parties with “a positive but cautious approach”.
The Newport-based legal expert said: “A good starting point is to view all parties as an extension of the workplace. The rule of thumb is that if it wouldn’t be acceptable in a working environment, then it wouldn’t be acceptable outside of it.
“It is important that employers are aware that they can be held vicariously responsible for the acts of their employees and this responsibility extends to these types of situations. It is therefore good practice to send out a clear message to employees before any significant social gatherings.”
Here Miss Guscott discusses the top issues that employers might need to combat this Christmas …
Unfortunately, Christmas parties are notorious for unwanted sexual attention, and what may appear to the pursuer like harmless flirtation under the mistletoe can easily become a bigger problem with serious consequences.
Inappropriate physical contact is not the only thing to be avoided, as sexual remarks or jokes presented as “banter” can often lead to the discomfort of others and result in legal problems.
Miss Guscott explains that employers must ensure that they have a firm anti-harassment policy in place, stating that “implementing these policies is vital in preventing unacceptable behaviour against co-workers, clients or any third parties”.
She said: “This kind of behaviour includes written or verbal comments, including jokes or questions of a sexual nature, sharing explicit images, sending emails containing sexual references or content, and unwanted physical contact. It’s good to remember if someone has not given you consent to do or say something, then it is not acceptable.”
It may seem obvious that discrimination in any form is unacceptable, as well as being in bad taste. However, there are also legal ramifications to this kind of behaviour.
Under the Equality Act 2010, it is unlawful to discriminate against others for any reason protected by the act, including age, race, nationality, sex, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, pregnancy and transsexuality.
Miss Guscott warns: “It is therefore important that all employees are made aware that such inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated in any circumstances, whether inside or outside of the workplace.”
Employers may also want to consider the way in which employees engage with social media during the festive season, which can also lead to complaints.
With most employees eager to document their Christmas parties across social media, it’s worth making sure there is a firm social media policy in place to avoid any problems.
Miss Guscott advises: “Whilst there’s nothing wrong with a harmless selfie or fun photos to be shared between the team, the last thing you want is for employees to go on a drunken rant about clients or co-workers on social media, which could also lead to issues of harassment, discrimination or bullying.
“A social media policy for employees is always good practice, especially during the festive season.”
How employers can reduce risk
All social events come with a risk, especially when alcohol is involved and can increase the risk of employee conflict or unacceptable behaviour. Many employers may be unaware that is their responsibility to ensure that measures are put in place to minimise the risk of disorderly behaviour, as well as making sure their employees get home safely.
Miss Guscott said: “At this time of year, particularly when alcohol is involved, there in an increased risk of disorderly behaviour. Employers should consider taking appropriate measures in order to minimise the risk, for example if they are putting on a free bar for employees at their Christmas party, then they may wish to consider providing food to ensure that they have eaten to avoid them drinking on an empty stomach. They may also wish to consider providing them with transport or ensuring that they are able to get home safely.
“With enough awareness, information and consideration, these issues can be avoided. However, if employers find themselves in a legal bind following their Christmas parties, it’s important to seek trusted legal advice to avoid further hassle and disruption.”
Whilst bearing all these points in mind employers should remember that the Christmas party is a time for staff to let down their hair and enjoy themselves after working hard all year. In taking the above into account employers can ensure that everyone has a great end to the year with no fireworks at the start of the new one.