The office Christmas party is fast approaching, with some staff viewing it as a chance to let loose. Without a clear and concise employee code of conduct, companies may be vulnerable to potential litigation.
While walking to work the other day, I was handed a leaflet by a young lad working for a restaurant nearby, offering 10% discounts to any company that makes a Christmas party reservation now. ‘Office Christmas party bookings? But we’re only in October,’ I pointed out.
He assured me that everyone books early to secure a venue. As I walked away, I realised that leaving it to the last minute is indeed risky. After all, what would Christmas be like without a proper venue, decked out with baubles and garland, where you and your colleagues can eat, drink and be merry – compliments of your employer? Think what a shame it would be if a year went by without a chance to see your manager do a drunken jive, or your colleague snog a table leg.
So, with this in mind, and with less than 12 weeks to go until the dreaded day, here are some festive tips to help you organise a merry and, with any luck, claim-free office Christmas party.
If spouses are invited, ensure this includes unmarried couples and same-sex partners. Failure to do so could result in discrimination claims on the grounds of sex and sexual orientation.
Don’t allow mistletoe to cross the threshold of your party venue. Although it may seem like innocent fun, mistletoe at the party increases the risk of sexual harassment claims. Even though your party may be outside working hours, and not on-site, it is still a work event. As such you are liable for the acts of your employees (particularly if you organised or funded the event), unless you took reasonable steps to prevent those acts. Protecting employees from sexual or sex-based harassment by third parties, including other guests, clients, entertainers and bar staff, is also your responsibility.
Take different religions into account when planning the big event, being careful not to discriminate against non-Christian employees. Ensure any dress code is non-discriminatory and make sure the party is timed to ensure it is open to all, regardless of religion or family responsibilities. A Christmas party in itself is unlikely to constitute religious discrimination; however, presenting your party as a ‘boozy knees-up’ may exclude employees whose faith requires them not to attend.
Don’t just plump for the traditional goose, turkey or roast ham; ensure there are appropriate options for vegetarians, vegans and those who cannot consume certain foods, such as beef or pork, due to their religious beliefs. In addition, offer a suitable option for employees with food allergies.
Make employees aware what type of Secret Santa gifts are considered appropriate as some gifts may offend and may even constitute harassment.
Suggestive lingerie, for example, may seem hilarious to the giver and onlookers, but may not be so amusing to the recipient. Equally, joke books and even coffee mugs that contain suggestive sayings or expletives may offend. Where an inappropriate gift is given, check whether the recipient is offended and advise them of the grievance process.
Make clear your expectations regarding absences the following day, or in the afternoon following a lunchtime gathering. Warn employees that unauthorised absence may result in disciplinary action.
Employees are most likely to call in sick as opposed to fail to turn up. Clarify your suspicion of overindulgence as the reason for their absence before taking disciplinary action. If the party is not on a weekend, make clear your expectations in terms of safety at work the following day. Employees required to return to work after a lunchtime gathering should be reminded to control their alcohol consumption and not drink if operating machinery or driving.
Choose a neutral venue and ensure it has an accessible entry for the disabled. Equally, it should not present any health and safety risks. The venue should be carefully selected to ensure all employees may attend if they wish to. Holding it at the local lap dancing club is inappropriate for obvious reasons; holding it at a nightclub may discriminate against younger employees who may not be old enough to gain entry, or older employees uncomfortable attending such a venue.
Ensure a plentiful supply of water and non-alcoholic beverages, giving employees the opportunity to curb excessive drinking. It also helps to ensure that those whose religion forbids the consumption of alcohol are not discriminated against. Limit the amount of free alcohol available. While a complimentary drinks bar may help foster good employee relations, a free bar will only encourage drunkenness and the problems that accompany it.
Make sure you vet all entertainers and speakers before hiring them to ensure their comments and acts do not constitute harassment or discrimination. Be vigilant of banter or standup that could be deemed offensive, especially if your entertainer singles out particular minority groups or perpetuates ethnic stereotypes.
Designate certain senior (sober) members of staff to supervise and ensure things don’t get out of hand. Inform employees who these individuals are.
When alcohol is consumed on company time you are responsible for your employees’ actions. This may include situations after staff leave the party, so ensure that those who drink don’t drive. Employers have a duty of care to ensure the safety of employees and non-employees, including passengers and other road users affected by work-related activities. Issue advice about travel before the event – give local taxi numbers or arrange transport.
Finally, provide written guidance on the standards of behaviour expected of employees. Inform them that normal disciplinary rules apply as it is a work-related activity, and highlight any relevant actions that are considered gross misconduct. Also, remind staff of the organisation’s equal opportunities, harassment and alcohol policies. Consider implementing a ‘conduct at work-related events’ policy or incorporate this into existing policies. Above all, ensure all employees are aware of such policies.
“Political correctness gone mad”, you might say. Perhaps, but woe betides any employer that does not take these matters seriously. So, if the above hasn’t dampened your festive spirit too much, it’s time to get organising.