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On the first day of Christmas my employee sent to me … a grievance about the party

13 Dec 2017

Incidents at Christmas parties are a common cause of workplace grievances. Clear communication to employees and managers can go a long way to avoiding those problems.  Will Walsh, Employment Partner at DMH Stallard, gives his 12 top tips on how to avoid a HR hangover.

Office parties are a constant source of problems for HR professionals, trying to ensure that employees behave appropriately, stay safe and can function for work the next day.  We give our 12 top tips on how you should deal with these issues:

1. Make it clear to your staff that the party is an extension of the workplace, even if it is taking place off the premises. This means that exactly the same standards of acceptable behaviour apply, as do the same disciplinary rules.

2. Tell your employees that the rules of behaviour also cover anyone who continues their celebrations after the end of the official party. Misconduct outside the workplace can still have an impact on the business, for example if someone is identified as your employee and their actions harm your reputation. You need to make sure that your disciplinary policy covers conduct outside the normal workplace. Many policies are too narrow and this will cause difficulties if you need to take formal action for these incidents.

3. Warn your employees about the misuse of social media. They might find it amusing to post pictures and details of their antics online but in the context of a work event this raises the risk of grievances, harassment and damage to reputation. You need to review your social media policy to ensure that it deals with these issues and that it covers private use of social media.

4. Give your employees a reminder of your equal opportunities policy. High spirits, alcohol and mistletoe are a dangerous combination.  Employees should be aware that an offensive joke can still be harassment even if was meant in fun. You will be liable for any discriminatory acts of your employees unless you take all reasonable steps to prevent them.  The existence of an equal opportunities policy is a starting point but you need to make sure that your employees have understood it.

5. Do not make attendance at the party compulsory. You will want as many of your staff as possible to come, however if your party is on a Friday or Saturday, there could be conflict with some religious beliefs. You also need to be sensitive about those with family commitments.

6. Tell your employees that they must report any unwanted conduct at the party as soon as it happens, whether they feel harassed themselves or they spot it happening to someone else.  Tell them not to worry about getting the wrong end of the stick, as long as they report the incident in good faith there will be no problem. If your party is held off your premises, there may be other members of the public there. You can be liable for harassment by people outside your organisation if you fail to take necessary steps to protect your employees.

7. Put a clear plan in place to avoid your employees drinking too much alcohol.  A free bar is rarely a good idea but if you do offer this then appoint managers to keep an eye on alcohol consumption. You can also speak to bar staff to insist that they do not serve employees who have had too much. If excess drinking is not discouraged, it increases the risk of trouble but also leave you liable for any harm suffered. Ensure that you have a good selection of non-alcoholic drinks available, not just to reduce alcohol consumption but also for the benefit of those who do not drink, whether through choice, religion, pregnancy or health reasons.

8. Remind managers that incidents arising at the party need to be handled in the normal way. Sometimes it will be simply be a case of having a quiet word with an employee to deal with a problem, but employees should not be disciplined on the spot. The matter will still need proper investigation and a normal process. It might be appropriate to send an employee home, depending on the circumstances, but formal action must wait.

9. Send a clear message to employees about the dangers of drink driving, not just when returning home from the party but also the following morning.  If you hold your party during the week and have employees who drive to work, you could still be responsible for their safety when travelling to work the next day. If they drive as part of their job, you are undoubtedly responsible.  If your party has a late finish time, if these employees plan to drink they should either take the next day as holiday or make other arrangements so that they don't have to drive. If you cannot allow them all to take holiday or need them to drive, limiting alcohol intake is essential.

10. Consider how you will deal with employees arriving the next day smelling of alcohol or still under the influence.  Communicate your policy to staff in advance. If you would treat either of those issues as a disciplinary offence, make sure that your disciplinary policy and rules say so. Many policies give being "under the influence of alcohol" as an example of gross misconduct, but employees can smell of alcohol without being under the influence or unfit to work. If simply smelling of alcohol is an issue, for example if they have a customer facing role, then your policy must say so. Your policy will not be enough on its own, if drinking was encouraged at the party itself then it will be difficult to discipline your employees the next day.

11. Deal with employees who fail to attend work the day after the party, or those who underperform, fairly and reasonably. If an employee calls in sick, the natural assumption will be that they are simply hungover.  If you plan to deal with that as a disciplinary issue, remember that disciplinary action needs to be based on evidence, not just assumptions. For underperforming employees, you should allow a little more flexibility but acceptable standards should be made clear.

12. Have fun! It is important to deliver the right messages to protect your employees and the business but do not get too carried away with rules and regulations.  If your staff see your message as trying to remove all of the fun, it will take away the point of having a party in the first place. The right balance is important.

How can we help?

The employment team at DMH can draft and review your policies to ensure that they suit your exact business needs. If you need help with this or if would like assistance with a statement to your staff in advance of your Christmas party, please contact Will Walsh (see below for contact details) or speak to your usual contact in the employment team.

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