3 steps to safeguarding christmas for management and staff

Christmas seems to be arriving earlier every year. Even though 25 December is around the corner, much of the festivities have already started.

Christmas is a traditional time of year for celebration, so everybody should enjoy the occasion. However, you should make sure that you don’t relax too much during this time and remain vigilant with your policies and procedures.

Christmas parties

Christmas parties are a prime time for things to go wrong. It’s nothing to do with cutting yourself on tinsel, falling off the table when hanging up the decorations (you shouldn’t be standing on a table, anyway) or developing an allergy to pine needles.

A Christmas event hosted or sponsored by an employer makes it work. Employers forget that they can end up being liable for the actions and welfare of their employees at such functions. If you’re thinking about having a Christmas social event, plan it carefully and in turn remind your employees of their responsibilities.

The aim of a Christmas party is to unwind and relax after a stressful year. Some employers provide a free bar, which is a generous gesture. The majority of employees will drink responsibly, but keep an eye on things. If the party gets boisterous – especially if alcohol fuelled – problems can arise. The main nuisance tends to be either remarks considered harassment or some form of fight. Every year, I have to sort out such cases on behalf of businesses across the board.

An alternative to a free bar could be buying each of your employees an individual drink, and making sure that there are plenty of soft drinks at the ready. Some cultures forbid the drinking of alcohol altogether, and have specific requirements about food. Whatever your bar arrangements, ensure you offer soft drinks for the non-drinkers.

Many religions prescribe certain animal or fish food products and vegetarianism for non-religious reasons. This trend has been growing in the UK for 40 years, so remember to provide interesting meat-free options. Speaking as a vegetarian of 30 years standing, don’t assume that veggies want to have cheese or cream in offered food. You wouldn’t believe how often it happens and how boring it is!

Issue guidelines to employees ahead of the Christmas party. These should set out your standards of behaviour and advise the consequences of breach. This could be a letter, an email, or poster pinned up on the notice board, but remind employees in advance that the party is a work-based event. Workers are expected to comply with the accepted standards of conduct in your workplace, loosened somewhat to take account of the occasion. Some of my clients say that this seems extreme. While most people may behave properly at the Christmas party, all it takes is one or two who don’t.

Believe me, it happens – every single year. One year, I was called in to resolve a post-Christmas party mess. A very successful consulting company had taken its well-trained, well-educated, professional, usually very well behaved employees and their partners to the south of France for an all-expenses paid weekend. One couple simply drank themselves silly, were barely able to communicate with others, were sick and generally cast a cloud over things. The MD confessed to me afterwards that he had discarded my usual warning because he thought it was over-the-top. He doesn’t disregard it any more. Prevention is better than cure.

This is also a good opportunity to remind staff of your procedures relating to sickness absence. Sending out an email in advance of the party reminds them that they are expected to attend work the following day (unless they have booked annual leave), is a good idea. Not surprisingly, the morning after your Christmas party is a prime time for employees to phone in sick, particularly if the festivities take place on a “school night”. You should not tolerate any unauthorised absence. If there is no adequate explanation for a worker’s absence, then it should be treated as unauthorised and subject to the disciplinary process like any other unauthorised absence.

Annual leave at Christmas

Many businesses close between Christmas and New Year, which solves many holiday squabbles. If your business is open over Christmas, you may have conflicting holiday requests from a number of employees. There is no automatic right for any employee to have time off, even for religious or family reasons. Adopt a “first come, first served” system to avoid any unfairness. Remember that outright and unconsidered refusals to accommodate e.g. religious beliefs and family requirements, may constitute discrimination. Take steps to think things through and justify your decision. Show you have adopted an equitable approach to holiday allocation. For example, last year Joe Bloggs had Christmas off; this year he is rostered to work.

Christmas bonuses

The effects of the recession are still biting, and as a way of cutting costs you might be considering scrapping Christmas bonuses altogether. If your employees’ contract of employment states that they have a right to a bonus, then you will be required to pay. If you have paid Christmas bonuses for a number of years then there may be an implied contractual right to a bonus payment, even if this has not been stated in the contract. There will be a reasonable expectation that employees will be receiving one this year.

If you decide not to make the payment, talk to those affected and explain why bonuses are not being paid this year. If you would only like to give bonuses to some employees, then make sure that your reasons for doing so are not discriminatory or made in bad faith.

Every year I remind my clients of the hazards of Christmas and every year I’m told what a fearful old grump I am. Without fail, someone has to be rescued from an HR festive foul-up. So take my advice and let me close by wishing you a very enjoyable party, completely free of problems!

Kate Russell is MD of Russell HR Consulting.

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