NMT HR Services Ltd – Tips and Insights – Tis the Season to be Jolly

NMT HR Services Ltd – Tips and Insights – Tis the Season to be Jolly

This is the last blog of the year from me and it centres around office parties and the receiving of gifts, as we come into the festive season.

Work parties

Christmas can throw up several issues for employers. Work’s parties can pose a particularly big issue, with many businesses having to decide how to ensure employees behave appropriately and what to do if they don’t!

An important check-list for any business who is hosting a party for their staff would be:

  • Provide and effectively communicate a clear policy on the standards of behaviour expected at work’s parties and what kinds of behaviour are unacceptable. Outline the consequences of staff not adhering to reasonable business expectations or standards whilst at the party (or travelling to/from the party)
  • At the office party itself, have a responsible manager (or two) in charge of monitoring the activities of staff and their intake of alcohol
  • Take reasonable steps to protect employees from third party harassment 

Whilst businesses will want to thank their staff for the previous year’s efforts and encourage them to relax/have a good time, they should also be aware that employers can be held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees at work’s parties. Particularly, if those actions are deemed to have been committed “in the course of employment”.

Alcohol and food

If an employer serves alcohol at a party then it is implicitly responsible for the guests’ consumption. Further, the business may be vicariously liable for any damage or injury caused by drunken guests. Always limit the amount of free alcohol that is available. In one legal case, employees got drunk at a party and were involved in brawl. They successfully argued that the subsequent dismissals were unfair: the employer had provided a free bar and therefore condoned their behaviour. If alcohol is on tap ensure that soft drinks (including plenty of water) are also provided.

Offer a variety of food that everyone can enjoy. It would be wise to ask the staff before the party if they have any special dietary requirements.

Problems at the party

Apart from the over-consumption of alcohol, the Christmas party can result in some harassment — sexual and other forms. Remind the staff of the company policy and the penalties before the event.

Managers should certainly avoid conversations about performance, promotion or pay. There are plenty of reported cases of such offers being made during party occasions, with the manager conveniently forgetting the next day. The employee then resigns in frustration at his or her hopes being disappointed and successfully claims constructive dismissal at the tribunal.

If a problem arises, never discipline any employee at the party itself, although he or she could of course be sent home. Deal with the incident when all are back in the office. Deal with any complaints seriously, following the usual disciplinary procedures. The fact that the complaint took place at a party is no defence for unacceptable behaviour by staff that could breach UK equality legislation.

Reputational damage

Apart from the problems identified above, businesses need to consider the potential for reputational damage should an office party get out of hand. I recently heard the following story from an events service provider:

“They were booked to provide entertainment for a well-known food retailer’s office party. It was a free bar. Everything was going well until they advised staff that the entertainment was drawing to a close. One particularly drunk member of staff became abusive, called the service provider a number of inappropriate and derogatory names, and was generally obnoxious and rude. Whilst the manager in charge apologised for the staff member’s behaviour, every time that particular retailers’ name is mentioned, this negative experience is the first thing the service provider thinks of, rather than how good the retailer is . . .”

Getting home

Give some thought as to how employees will get home after the party; particularly as public transport may have stopped by the time the party finishes. In addition to issuing warnings about drinking and driving, businesses may wish to provide taxis or coaches to get staff home. At the very least they should alert employees to the need to pre-book a taxi and provide the appropriate telephone numbers. They should also be aware that they may be liable if they knowingly allow an employee to drive home when under the influence of alcohol!

The morning after

There are a number of potential problems here. Employees should have been made aware before the party of the consequences of turning up late for work (or even of being absent) after a hard night. Of course, the business may generously decide there are none!

Banter at the party can easily continue into the following week, with employees sharing recollections and pictures of what took place with colleagues through social media. The company’s policy should state clearly the dangers of such activity as well as the potential for either a claim of harassment or disciplinary action against the employees involved.

Receiving of gifts (*)

This can also be an issue for employers.

Many suppliers and business connections will deliver gifts to business premises over the festive season (or indeed throughout the year) as a way of saying thank you for custom, potential custom or support.

Businesses should ensure that they have a clearly written and well communicated policy available to all staff outlining what the process is for receiving or returning gifts (at any time of the year), and how any gifts received should be recorded within the business.

Whilst most businesses welcome deserving employees receiving a small token of gratitude or appreciation from a customer or client, it may be that there is the potential for abuse and/or the gift could be viewed as constituting a bribe or other inducement. Giving of gifts can also be catalysts for employee’s feeling devalued or lead to claims of favoritism and it may be that an employer would like all of their staff to feel included . . .

Generally, businesses will have a method for recording any gifts their employees may receive from clients, customers, suppliers and/or contractors (including prospective and former clients, customers, suppliers and/or contractors), or from any other person or organisation with which the Company has, or might have, business connections. 

Generally, there is no expectation on employees to complete a gift ‘register’ in relation to the receipt of small promotional gifts i.e. items such as pens, mugs, calendars or stationery that bear the company name or logo of another organisation, provided that these have no significant financial value.

(*) A ‘gift’ is deemed to be any payment or item given to the employee on an apparent ex gratia basis by any party in connection with their employment.

Now may be a good time to review your own in-house policies, before the festive season gets too far down the road, and ensure that they are effectively re-communicated to all staff.

Further assistance and policy provision can be made available by NMT HR Services Ltd on request.