Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Christmas Dos and Don’ts

Siobhan Harding

‘Tis the season to be jolly! Yes it is but in this season of Christmas parties there are some dos and don’ts for those attending their “Christmas Do”.

The office party is an important way to show appreciation and recognition for the hard work that employees have carried out during the year. However things can go wrong particularly when alcohol is involved and it is important to remember that the same policies, procedures and legal recourse for employees that apply in the office apply to the Christmas party.

There are some actions that employers can take to prevent problems arising at the Christmas party:

  • Ensure that the employer has an up to date Equal Opportunities Policy and that the policy has been communicated to all staff. Sexual harassment can be a big problem at Christmas parties. Both the employer and the person carrying out the harassment can be liable and pursued through the Industrial Tribunal system. It is therefore important that policies are in place on bullying and harassment and that staff are clear what these are.
  • Send out, before the Christmas party, a “party policy” which includes a statement outlining that employees are there under the umbrella of the organisation and that the normal rules, policies and procedures, including disciplinary and grievance apply. Also ensure you set out clearly the expected standards, give examples of what would be considered inappropriate and the penalties for ignoring them.
  • Employers have a duty of care towards their employees. Employers should put measures in place to ensure employees don’t drink and drive and get home safely. For example, the employer could consider ending the party before public transport stops running; provide a means of transport for getting employees home; encourage employees to share lifts; or providing the phone numbers for local taxi companies.
  • Under the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, it is an offence for an employer to knowingly permit or even to ignore the use, production or supply of any controlled drugs, from cannabis to cocaine, taking place on their premises and this may also be a breach of health and safety law.
  • If the Christmas party is mid-week and staff are expected in work the next day, employers should provide plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and food. Your party policy statement should make clear what could initiate disciplinary action which may include failure to turn up for work following the party without a reasonable explanation.
  • Drinking at lunch time may be more prevalent at this time of year. Alcohol consumption should always be discouraged and clearly set out as such in your disciplinary rules and procedures. However employers must be careful if there has been a history of tolerance of this sort of behaviour in the past as it may be viewed as acceptable.

If employers have policies and procedures in place which provide guidance and cover the key issues outlined above then they will be in a better position to respond to and defend matters that may arise as a result of the Christmas party. In most instances the employer may only be liable if they have not done everything they reasonably could have done to prevent breaches of the law.

Another problem which can arise at this time of the year is the issue of the Christmas bonus. If an employer has paid a discretionary Christmas bonus for several years employees could argue that it has become contractual through custom and practice. Given these difficult economic times it may well be that the employer is unable to afford to pay a bonus this year. It is important that the employer informs and consults staff why they are unable to pay the bonus. A solution may be that the employer and employee agree to receiving a proportion of the bonus; staggered payments of the bonus over a few months or some other affordable incentive as an alternative.

Further information is available from your local CAB or from the Labour Relations Agency on 028 9032 1442. Help is also available from the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland on developing an equal opportunities policy – visit their website at www.equalityni.org.

Siobhan Harding is an Information and Policy Officer with Citizens Advice

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