Christmas ProblemsTuesday, December 6th, 2011
Christmas may well be a season of great joy and bonhomie for employees, but for the employer it can be a time of great peril. Standards tend to drop the closer one gets to the last working day. Managers may be inclined to turn a blind eye to this situation, fearing unpopularity, but in so doing they may leave their employer open to all manner of legal problems.
The employer has an overriding duty to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of every employee, with a particular responsibility for young or other vulnerable employees who may easily be led astray by the attentions of more senior staff or by the examples of older colleagues. In addition it must take steps to ensure that, as people let their hair down and their inhibitions are freed at Christmas parties, no unlawful discrimination occurs. What may be an awfully funny racist joke at the party – “no offence to you of course, Wayne” – may result in an awfully large fine for the employer when Wayne repeats it at the Employment Tribunal in the New Year. And nobody is immune from being the butt of discriminatory jokes or comments since the law protects all genders, colours, beliefs and so on.
The two main problem areas are the Christmas party and the last working day. Office wide parties are diminishing in popularity with employers, but nevertheless employees seem anxious to have a get-together with their workmates around Christmas time. An important consideration is that, if the employer has anything to do with the organising of the party such that it can be seen to be an official company event – the Angling Club dinner for example – then the employer is responsible for what goes on there. The party is in effect an extension of the workplace and, apart from the fact that people may dress and behave informally and have a drink, the normal rules of behaviour should prevail. No sexist jokes, no drunkenness, no fighting, no improper behaviour of any sort. If things do go wrong, for example an employee is sexually or racially harassed, or a fight breaks out and the premises are damaged, then the only defence the employer would have is that it took all reasonable steps to maintain good behaviour. Therefore wherever a celebration may be held, if the organisation sanctions it in any way, then someone should be appointed to maintain good order. Not a pleasant job but it must be a condition applied to any official event. The person appointed must intervene if anything begins to go wrong and contain the incident before it grows into anything serious. This may mean telling an employee that he or she has drunk enough or is behaving improperly with someone of the opposite sex. And at the end of the event the appointed person should if necessary take steps to prevent someone getting behind the wheel of a car if he or she is incapable through drink of driving safely.
The last working day before Christmas is viewed frequently by employees as an at-work holiday when they can move around the premises bestowing goodwill to all. This is likely to be resented by people who, if they do not need to or cannot work, would rather be away doing the shopping or getting the home ready for Christmas. Therefore produce a policy, communicate it to all employees, and insist that managers enforce it strictly. Decide what to do about alcohol; ideally ban it from the site and suggest that people celebrate in the pub after work. A common practice nowadays is to allow people to finish working early, insist that they work normally until that time, then give them half an hour to wish their friends seasonal greeting after which you lock up the premises.
Christmas is indeed a time of joy but also one of great peril for the employer and for people who may become victims of harassment or of drunk drivers. Make sure to tell your employees what they may and may not do, thereby protecting them and anyone they come into contact with.