Jingle bells or warning bells?

Emma Griffiths, a solicitor in the employment department at national law firm HBJ Gateley Wareing, explains how to keep all your employees merry during the holiday season.

I’ve paid a discretionary Christmas bonus for the past 15 years but can’t afford to pay it this year due to the credit crunch. Is this okay?Even if the bonus is discretionary, employees may argue that it’s become contractual through custom and practice. Think carefully about the decision not to pay and explain your reasons to employees with a view to reaching an agreed solution.

I’ve been told that putting up Christmas decorations could be religious discrimination. Is this true? No. Legislation on religion and belief does not prohibit Christmas decorations. As most decorations are not expressly religious (such as trees, lights and tinsel), it could be difficult to say they cause offence to non-Christians. Know your workforce and talk to them to reach a sensible solution if you think decorations may offend.

Christmas is a Christian festival. Can I hold a Christmas party if I have employees who belong to other faiths?Yes. A non-Christian employee could try to argue that the office party discriminates against them as their own religious festival is not celebrated. However, it’s unlikely that an employment tribunal would be willing to find that a Christmas party, in itself, is religious discrimination – particularly if it is a thank you to staff for their efforts in the past year, rather than a religious celebration.

What do I need to consider when planning the office party?Sense-check the venue, theme, menu and date of the party to take different religious groups into account. Alcohol-fuelled parties may offend Muslims and Friday nights may cause a problem for Orthodox Jews. Think about the food and drink on offer to ensure all of your staff are catered for.How should I deal with any fall out from the office party?Employees may say that the comments or actions of colleagues at the office party have upset them. You can still be liable for actions of employees at these events and victims could bring harassment claims, so take any complaints made seriously.

You need to be prepared to investigate any complaints, interview witnesses, meet with the employee to discuss their complaint and write to them to explain your conclusions. If the complaint is upheld, you may need to take disciplinary action against the offender.

What do I do when employees ring in sick the morning after the office party?If you have reason to suspect an employee who phones in sick is actually off through over-indulgence, you can carry out an investigation and discipline if appropriate. You may wish to warn employees before the event that disciplinary action could be taken if they fail to turn up for work the morning after. This should be enough to motivate your staff to drag themselves in… albeit nursing their sore heads!

Related articles:Bringing down the cost of absenceHow to motivate the survivorsPicture source

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