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Ten top Christmas tips for SMEs

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Christmas celebrations are a great way of recognising and rewarding the contribution your staff have made over the past 12 months, and raising morale after a stressful year.

But Christmas can also be a minefield for employers, as the line between work and play gets blurred. It pays to plan ahead and lay some ground rules:

1. Show sensitivity. Remember that we live in a multi-faith society and not all employees will want to be involved in Christmas festivities, or celebrations where lots of alcohol will be consumed.

Don’t force staff to attend the Christmas party. They may have faith and personal reasons why they do not wish to attend. If they refuse, then accept that refusal, but explain that if they should change their minds they would be more than welcome to attend. Or you could consider alternative party themes so that non-drinkers do not feel excluded.

2. Be aware of discrimination. Where staff are forced to take holiday time at Christmas, be aware that employees of other faiths and beliefs may want to take time out for their own activities. Don’t rota staff on the Christmas shifts just because they do not belong to a faith or belief that recognises Christmas.

Talk to your staff about rotas and make sure that, wherever possible, you use volunteers rather than co-opting people in.

3. Remember health and safety. If you’re decorating the office, use a stepladder – not a chair – and don’t cover up emergency exit or other important signs with tinsel, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents advises. Also remember that your insurance may not cover damage caused by untested electrical equipment, so don’t leave those tree lights on over night.

4. Keep it clean. Ensure that your party games and present-giving celebrations are done in a tasteful manner. Santa should not ask any member of staff to sit on his or her knee, unless you fancy a harassment claim coming your way. Similarly, gifts of underwear and sex toys have sparked employee complaints in the past, so remind people to keep it appropriate.

And miss out the mistletoe; a recent survey reported by ContractorUK found that,while 80 per cent of women would laugh off a pass made by a male co-worker, boss or client, 13 per cent wouldn’t.

5. Don’t let alcohol flow too freely. Alcohol-fuelled punch-ups and threatening behaviour top the list of reasons for disciplinary action following the staff Christmas party, according to a poll by the CIPD.

As an employer, you have duty of care to your employees at work and work-sponsored events.

Take precautions to ensure that your staff get home safely – and don’t drink and drive – by organising the party to end before public transport finishes, providing transport, or making sure everyone attending has the local taxi firm’s phone number. And remember, you should not allow or encourage under-18s to drink.

6. Let staff know what is expected of them. Inform staff in advance that acceptable standards of behaviour are expected of them, and that your existing discipline and grievance policies apply, even if the party is held away from their normal place of work.

If there is an incident at a work function, employers may be held liable for the actions of staff towards each other if it can be established that the event was an extension of the workplace.

7. Watch out for drugs. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, it is an offence for an employer to knowingly permit or even to ignore the use of any controlled drugs taking place on their premises. This may also constitute a breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

8. Act professionally. Christmas is a great time to let your hair down and socialise with your staff, but be careful not to share anything you wouldn’t in the office, such as confidential information or personal opinions of other employees.

9. The morning after. If the party takes place when some or all attendees will need to work the next day, make sure people know beforehand what is expected of them and that disciplinary action could be taken if they fail to turn up for work because of over-indulging.

It’s important to lead by example too. A survey by insurers Aviva found that senior managers are in fact 67 per cent more likely to call in sick the day after a Christmas party than other members of staff.

10. Take advantage of tax breaks. The cost of a staff Christmas party is an allowable tax deduction. But stick within the £150 per head annual tax-free limit – or risk being deflated by a tax bill long after the festive spirit has worn off.

VAT can also be recovered on staff entertaining expenditure, but not for non-staff such as partners and spouses. Ask your accountant for further details.

Finally, ensure that everyone has a good time and fun in moderation without upsetting others.

The Forum of Private Business is a not-for-profit organisation set up to help small business owners run their companies. Visit their website here.

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