QUESTION: We have organised a Christmas party for our staff and paid a deposit to a hotel. However, we have now been advised that the hotel will not allow anyone under 21 into their disco. Are they within their rights?
JOANNA WHITE, an employment lawyer with Arthur Cox solicitors, replies:
Under licensing laws, while the legal age to purchase alcohol is 18, licence-holders can exercise their discretion to refuse entry to the premises to those whom they decide.
The hotel can therefore refuse entry to those under the age of 21.
While this is tantamount to direct age discrimination, the age discrimination legislation does not currently extend to those who provide goods, facilities and services to the public (which would include the hotel), although this is under review.
Therefore, the employee could not bring a claim against the hotel but could bring an age discrimination claim against the employer.
In defence of such a claim, the employer would argue that the policy of not admitting under-21s was the hotel's policy and not its policy.
By going ahead with the party, however, the employer would be implementing the hotel's policy and arguably therefore, it would be treating the under 21's less favourably than the older employees by not allowing them to go to the disco.
The employer would then have to argue that it could objectively justify the direct (or indirect) age discrimination.
Leaving the legal arguments to one side, the most sensible way forward is practical and commercial.
This is especially so at this time of year, with the employer being unable to change the venue for the Christmas party at this stage (even if the hotel is willing to refund the deposit).
On the commercial side, the employer will need to assess the risk of the under-21s bringing an age discrimination claim (for instance, how many employees are under 21?) and even if they did, potentially take the risk of damages for unlawful age discrimination.
While the risk of an injury to feelings award exists, the amount of the award for not being able to attend the post dinner disco is likely to be relatively low.
QUESTION: My staff's stress levels are growing and I must confess to feeling the pressure myself. How can I keep motivated and avoid productivity dropping?
TANYA KENNEDY, workplace director, Business in the Community, replies:
Managing health and wellbeing is paramount to keeping businesses vital and profitable through challenging times.
It is great to see you have picked up on this in your firm because stress can lead to longer term mental health problems, so it's important to deal with things quickly.
Keep looking for the early warning signs, including changes in typical behaviours of your staff.
Emotionally, watch for mood swings and irritability, while physically, you may notice sudden weight loss or gain, nervous habits, tiredness through lack of sleep and general illnesses including headaches and colds.
Early intervention is most effective.
The Health and Safety Executive has published excellent management standards for work-related stress that can be downloaded from their website.
Additionally, Business in the Community will publish an employer's emotional resilience toolkit early in 2009, offering business approaches to reduce workplace stress.
Successful companies engage staff through regular stress monitoring, assessment of staff well-being and action planning, allied to regular communication through employee forums to quickly detect negative trends.
Most importantly, mind your own stress levels, as you provide leadership and direction for your business.
If tough decisions need to be made, make them responsibly.
Be honest with staff and keep them informed of the decision making process.
Make them aware of why decisions are being made and how it will affect everyone at the company, including management and directors.
QUESTION: I have a small farm and am interested in diversifying into new activities to supplement my income. I understand that I may be able to get help with this. Can you advise?
ELAINE BROWN, a member of Invest NI’s entrepreneurship development team, replies:
Around 10% of Northern Ireland's farms have diversified into additional income generating activities. Every farm has the potential to do this.
Farm diversification can involve anything from adding pastured poultry and organic beef production to starting a bed and breakfast in the barn or setting up a local tourist attraction.
It usually involves a shift from traditional farming activities into non-farm projects.
To start with you should look at any under-used resources or assets that you may have on your farm and think about how you could put them to use.
Also look around your local area to see if there is a demand for a product or service that is not currently being met. You might be able to fill the gap.
Or perhaps you already have a business idea.
If so, you should work up a realistic business plan.
If not, you can get ideas from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), which produces a number of fact sheets on rural business ideas. Check out its website, which also gives contact details for rural enterprise advisers.
You can also get advice and support from Invest NI, particularly if your proposed business is likely to have an export dimension. You can find details of your nearest Invest NI local office on www.investni.com.
There is a good section on the nibusinessinfo.co.uk website that gives an overview of the issues to consider when diversifying your farm business and the support available.