Ruth Christy: Avoiding the pitfalls of the office Christmas party

Office Christmas party

The Christmas party season is approaching and, for employers, it could open a Pandora’s Box of complications if not carefully managed.

The office Christmas party presents two specific challenges: the party is normally off site and the combination of high spirits and alcohol. This unique work-related scenario requires some forward planning for managers, and familiarising themselves now with the potential pitfalls could prevent their Christmas celebration turning into a big hangover.

One of the most important considerations is to ensure that all arrangements for the event are not discriminatory. This includes making sure that the entertainment is not inappropriate, there are suitable arrangements for disabled staff, and having plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and vegetarian food.

Furthermore, it is helpful to refer simply to ‘guests’, if staff are allowed to bring them, to avoid allegations of sexual orientation discrimination but also to allow those who do not have a partner to bring a friend if they want.

A key responsibility for employers is the safety of their staff and employers should ensure there are appropriate travel arrangements and/or advice for getting home safely.

Once all the planning is out of the way, employers’ responsibilities do not end at the party venue’s doors. Responsible behaviour can be encouraged by reminding staff this is a work-related event and normal disciplinary rules still apply.

An unlimited ‘free bar’ is not advised. Instead, limit the amount of free alcohol available and provide plenty of non-alcoholic drinks: an important consideration because it will cater for staff who are driving or who do not drink for religious reasons.

My biggest post-party ‘golden rule’ for employers would be not to jump to warnings or dismissal of staff who misbehave at the party without conducting the proper investigation and disciplinary process and, especially since it is not always clear who is to blame for any misconduct, treating staff consistently.

Post-party gossip, increasingly done via social media, throws up another potential headache which has led to discrimination and constructive dismissal claims in the past. Therefore, employers are advised to draw attention to responsibilities under their social media or equivalent policy to prevent potentially damaging gossip via Facebook or other social networking sites.

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With a little risk management, the Christmas party can be a jovial occasion that everyone will remember for the right reasons.

Ruth Christy is an employment specialist at law firm Blake Morgan