News & Views

Avoid a blue Christmas this year

BY Heather Kemmett
Employment law
BG Purple

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me: 12 drunken employees, 11 sexist jokers, 10 crates of booze bought, 9 copier mishaps, 8 leering managers, 7 brawling blokes, 6 cupboard lovers, 5 bullied workers, 4 broken bones, 3 drunk drivers, 2 promised promotions, and a MASSIVE Christmas party headache! Follow LAW’s advice and plan ahead so you can step into Christmas without worrying about the legal pitfalls.

Oh come all ye faithful? Employers should ensure that all staff members are invited to the Christmas party, to avoid any complaints of HR. If partners are being invited, ensure that same sex partners are not left out. Likewise, employees of non-Christian faiths should not be excluded, nor pressurised into attending Christmas events if they are uncomfortable.  

Have yourself a merry little Christmas but if employers are providing the booze, make sure it’s not too merry! There has been a case in which an employee’s dismissal for fighting at a work event was held to be unfair because his employer had provided an open bar and so had “condoned” the employee’s drunken behaviour. If you are providing alcohol, be sure to provide plenty of soft drink options. Employers should also be careful about the timing of parties- lunchtime or midweek parties have the potential to cause problems if your employees are returning to work in a less than productive state. If you intend to discipline employees for absence or misconduct, think back to Last Christmas and ensure you are behaving consistently.  

Everyone loves a bit of rocking around the Christmas tree, but employers should make sure that office furniture, including Christmas decorations, do not pose a hazard to health and safety during office parties. On the other hand, no-one loves to see chestnuts roasting on an open photocopier, so it’s best to keep partying employees away from printing rooms in case of “mechanical malfunctions”.  

Mommy might have been happy to smooch Santa Claus, but such wanton public displays of affection in a workplace setting might well be inappropriate or worse, unwanted. Employers can protect themselves against sexual harassment complaints by ensuring that staff are well aware of Equal Opportunities and/or Bullying and Harassment policies. It is also worth noting that if a claim is raised, employers might not be held liable for the actions of their employees if they have arranged adequate annual Equal Opportunities training for staff (contact your legal manager if you would like LAW to help arrange this for your organisation). Similarly, be sure to warn staff that inappropriate Secret Santa gifts will not be tolerated- all Judy from accounting wants for Christmas is unlikely to include sexy underwear from her boss.  

Driving Home for Christmas? If your staff are driving home from the Christmas party and are feeling so “festive” that they really don’t know whether it’s Christmas time at all, don’t allow them to drive. Employers have a duty of care towards their staff so should ensure that everyone has sensible post-party travel plans. You may also want to think about reminding drivers that the drink drive limit in Scotland will be reduced as of 5th December this year from 80mg to 50mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood. 

O Holy Fight! Think ahead and brief staff well in advance of the party of your organisation’s position on festive fisticuffs. Ensure that staff are well aware of the organisation’s disciplinary policy and be consistent when applying it. 

Do you hear what I hear? If that’s the sound of one of your organisation’s managers making promises to staff on contractual matters, such as promotions, at the Christmas party, you should be worried! Promises made in this way could be binding, and intoxication might not be a sufficient defence. Make sure that managers are warned about talking shop and committing the organisation to promises it can’t keep.  

White Christmas? If the white stuff is less cold, flaky and wet and more powdery and illegal, you should take steps to ban it from your staff party. Illegal drug use should never be promoted or condoned. Even to ignore drug use that you know to be happening on your watch could land your organisation in hot water under the Misuse of Drugs Act.  

Finally, if you are staging your winter wonderland outside the workplace, be aware that you could still be held liable for any legal claims brought in respect of the party. You could also be liable for third parties who are not staff members causing trouble at your bash. For example, when one workplace hosted a party outside the workplace and invited Bernard Manning to be their speaker, the employer was held liable in a claim by one of the waitresses at the event who was offended by Mr Manning’s act.  

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