Boozy brawls, festive flirting and festering finger-food are creating a legal minefield for employers, making the office bash one of the most risky corporate events of the year.
Richard Smith, HR expert at Croner Consulting, said: “Unfortunately, employers can’t just draft a disclaimer that says employees attend the party at their own risk, as the eyes of the law see the event as a work activity.
With so many risks, some employers may be left wondering whether the Christmas party is worth the bother at all.
But there are a lot of simple, proactive measures that can reduce the risk of problems during and after the event.
Top Ten Rules for Yule:
Set a party policy: From the employer’s point of view, the Christmas party is classed as a work activity.
Employers should, therefore, be have guidelines in place. These could be as simple as displaying a list of employees’ responsibilities, such as acceptable standards of behaviour, on a notice board.
The employer’s responsibilities, such as meeting health and safety requirements and providing grievance procedures to deal with any resulting problems, should also be outlined.
Identify potential hazards: A risk assessment must be carried out to identify potential hazards. This could involve inspecting the venue to plan for possible drunken slips and trips, considering the safety of people going home after the event, and even identifying any potential conflict between employees so that table plans can be organised accordingly.
Issue behavioural guidelines: These should be included in the party policy and should spell out what is unacceptable behaviour, such as harassment, bullying and fighting.
Employees should understand that, as this is technically a work activity, normal disciplinary procedures would be applied.
Invite husbands, wives and life-partners: If inviting employees’ partners to the event, employers need to tread carefully.
This should not be restricted to husbands and wives but also extended to long-term partners of the opposite and same sex, to avoid potential sexual orientation discrimination claims.
Avoid ‘tipple tattle': Boozing bosses should avoid talking about promotion, career prospects or salary with employees who may use the convivial atmosphere to discuss matters that are more suited to a formal appraisal or private meeting. The employee is likely to expect any career promises to be kept – even if the employer cannot remember making them.
Limit the spirit: An employer that supplies the alcohol, or encourages its consumption may be legally responsible for the welfare of employees if they suffer from drink induced disasters – even if they occur outside of the party itself.
The best solution is to limit the number of free drinks and be prepared to ask individuals to take it easy if they appear worse for the wine.
Don’t poison your staff: If providing a buffet, the food must be safe to eat. Buffets present a particularly high risk of food poisoning from foods such as cooked meats, eggs, mayonnaise and cooked rice.
Food should not be left out at room temperature for more than 90 minutes and should be stored below 5C.
Ditch the mistletoe: The Christmas party is the perfect environment for a festive fling but this could have repercussions when employees return to work. A brief encounter under the mistletoe can cause embarrassment in the workplace and put strain on working relationships.
While many businesses have informal views on office affairs, most do not have a policy on workplace relationships. Employers should make sure all employees are informed of the company’s view on romantic affairs between colleagues and reminded of this ahead of the party.
Stop drink driving: As employers are responsible for employees’ actions after consuming alcohol that they have provided, sensible bosses will issue advice before the party about not driving after having an alcoholic drink.
It is advisable to hire a minibus for the end of the night, or provide the phone numbers of local taxi firms to demonstrate that reasonable steps have been taken to minimise this risk.
Do not expect miracles the morning after: A contract exists between the employee and employer that they will be in a fit state to carry out the work they are being paid to do.
Bosses should decide to what extent they will be lenient to staff who come to work with a hangover, arrive late or not at all, and inform employees in advance. More important is the safety of employees, who may not be fully sober the next day, especially if they need to drive or operate machinery.
Employers should either advise employees beforehand not to drink too much alcohol, or remove the risk to safety by giving them alternative work until they are fit to resume their normal tasks.