How to have a trouble-free Christmas party

09 December 2016

Teresa Thomas, partner and head of employment, provides some timely seasonal advice on how to make sure that your office Christmas party doesn't fall foul to any employment law issues.

The festive season is upon us and we’re all in the mood for celebrating, but the popular office Christmas party can be fraught with problems from an employment law perspective: for employers and employees alike.

Whilst we may want to simply trust our employees or colleagues to act responsibly and embody the values and shared ethos of the company, sometimes a little help and guidance go a long way.

Circulate an inclusive invitation:

Although we might assume that everyone will want to let their hair down and join in the party, employers must be aware that some employees will not celebrate Christmas, or might have other personal commitments that make attending impossible. Therefore, do not insist that the party is mandatory, or perhaps host a party at another time of year. Also remember that employees may be vegetarian or unable to eat certain foods so ask beforehand about any special dietary requirements so that these can be accommodated.

Also remember that employees may be vegetarian or unable to eat certain foods so ask beforehand about any special dietary requirements so that these can be accommodated.

Be mindful of decorations:

Most Christmas decorations such as tinsel, lights and trees are secular and not inherently religious, so it would be difficult to argue that they could cause offence to non-Christians under the Equality Act.

However, make sure you conduct a proper risk assessment and be aware of those that could pose potential fire hazards, and you will not breach health and safety. Your insurance may not cover damage caused by untested electrical equipment so make sure you switch off tree lights before going home.

Set some ground rules:

While ‘party policies’ may seem Scrooge-like, it’s possible to set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour whilst still acknowledging that employees will want to let their hair down. Providing clear, written guidance is a useful reminder to employees that the contract of employment still stands, including clauses such as confidentiality, discipline, harassment and discrimination.

It is a valuable precaution for employers and can help to demonstrate that reasonable action has been taken to protect employees.

Encourage responsible alcohol consumption:

Getting blind drunk at Christmas parties may be a thing of the past, but it’s important that employers are responsible when it comes to the provision of alcohol. Some small changes you can make are:

  • Avoid a free bar to limit excessive consumption
  • Ensure plenty of food is available early on. and/or
  • Put on entertainment - such as a disco - to prevent employees from simply propping up the bar.

Keep an eye out too for any younger members of staff, as employers cannot allow under-18s to drink. Finally, be respectful of employees who, for whatever reason, do not drink. Ensure there is a plentiful supply of alcohol-free alternatives and lots of water.

Avoid the perils of social media:

In an age where everyone has a smartphone and social media accounts, social media poses one of the most challenging aspects of the office Christmas party. Posting compromising pictures of others without consent could raise data protection issues and inappropriate messages could cause offence or embarrassment, damaging reputations and trust.

Employers are advised to have social media policies in place, and to ensure that employees understand this extends to the party. Another option is to discourage personal photography in favour of having an official photographer, with the images being vetted before sharing company-wide.

Keep present recipients anonymous:

Avoid the normal Secret Santa gifting set up, as some employees can buy inappropriate gifts for employees they know personally. Whilst the recipient may not find the gift offensive, others witnessing the gifting may still. This can be avoided by using a tombola option, where everyone submits an anonymous gift and tickets are drawn in a random manner.

Be clear about attendance the next day:

If your party is mid-week, ensure your staff know the extent to which you will be lenient about absence or lateness the next working day and that, if your expectations are breached, disciplinary action may be taken. If an employee does breach your expectations, don’t just lose your temper and type out a written warning: consult your policy on alcohol and drugs misuse and follow your laid-down disciplinary process.

Other advice:

  • Don’t say anything you wouldn’t be comfortable saying at 9am in the office
  • Don’t flout the dress code by wearing anything offensive
  • Don’t get blind drunk as it could land you in disciplinary action
  • Don’t give inappropriate gifts
  • Don’t bring or take illegal substances
  • Don’t participate in or instigate controversial topics of conversations
  • Don’t be intolerant or disrespectful of those who don’t celebrate Christmas

And finally

Do remember to relax and enjoy yourself – all within the remits of acceptable behaviour!

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