Work woes in winter: Handling the party season

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Christmas parties are designed to be fun, but a few festive drinks can quickly get out of hand if not managed correctly. A sobering thought is that employers can be vicariously liable for the action of employees during work events such as Christmas parties.

In order to minimise the risks, we explore the steps employers can take before and after any work social event.

What steps could employers take prior to the event? 

Conduct a risk assessment

Although not the first (or most exciting) element that springs to mind when party-planning, a risk assessment is a pre-party essential. Identifying risks and implementing appropriate measures can greatly reduce accidents and the costs flowing from them. An employer should also consider if the proposed venue is suitable for any disabled staff and, if not, either change the venue or implement adaptations to make it suitable or risk claims for discrimination. 

Limit numbers

Control capacity and avoid unwanted guests by implementing a strict ‘no plus one’ approach. Issuing tickets or operating a guestlist can also help safeguard against rogue admissions. It also keeps the costs down of the overall event – something Finance will thank you for.

Consider transport

Remind employees in advance to consider travel arrangements to and from the venue and highlight the consequences of drink driving for those choosing to drive. If budget allows, overnight accommodation at a nearby hotel could be subsidised or coaches provided to the nearest towns.

Limit alcohol

Employers should promote responsible consumption and also ensure to cater for those that don’t (or can’t yet) drink. The once coveted ‘open-bar’ might seem attractive, but it will likely create more problems than it’s worth. Costs aside, it can encourage excessive drinking with a knock-on effect on behaviour and attendance the following day. Instead, employers may want to consider allocating drinks tokens or some allotted time, ‘happy hour’-style. 

Provide food

Drinking on an empty stomach is never a good idea, so help avoid this and the resulting consequences by providing food in the office during the day and/or at the event itself. 

Define expectations on behaviour

Explain to employees from the outset that it is a work event and employees should behave accordingly. Remind employees to be respectful of others at the party, for example, not to harass individuals who chose not to drink at the event and not to engage in inappropriate banter or behaviours. Whilst no one will be disciplined for enjoying a drink or two, be clear that any instances of misconduct during the party will not be tolerated and will result in disciplinary action. Draw attention to relevant policies such as bullying and harassment, drug and alcohol and the social media policy – employees will likely need a refresh as they probably don’t read these very often. 

The morning after…

There will no doubt be a few sore heads following the Christmas Party and it will be that bit more tempting to switch off the alarm and call in sick. What could employers do to combat lateness or non-attendance?

Incentivise attendance

Employers could incentivise employees to come into the office by providing breakfast the morning after. Whilst this is a softer approach and by no means reliable, it at least tries to maintain some of festive spirit generated by the party itself.

Hybrid working

In our post-covid era (and if the role and business demands allow) the option to work remotely may prove popular, allowing employees to exchange the commute for an extra hour in bed.

Flexible working

To continue the goodwill and festive cheer, employers may allow employees to start an hour later than usual the day after the party and exercise the flexible working policy. 

Treat as misconduct

Unauthorised absence could be classed as misconduct and therefore be addressed under the employer’s disciplinary policy if considered appropriate. However, it can be hard to determine whether an absence is genuine or not and the investigations needed to establish this are time-consuming and a process HR might want to avoid. 

Deduct pay

Whilst this may seem an extreme measure and is, of course, dependant on the terms of the employment contract, an employer may be entitled to deduct an employee’s pay for lateness or non-attendance. Employees should be made aware if this is a possible consequence of lateness well in advance of the event itself.
Whatever approach is taken, employers need to set clear expectations, in line with policies and procedures, ahead of the event itself as to how lateness or absence post the event will be treated.

Key take-aways

The above measures are viable options (contracts and policies permitting) and arguably justified if high levels of absence would leave a business under-resourced. That said, some may be perceived as punitive and since Christmas parties are often held to boost morale, it would be a shame to lose this the very next day. The best approach is therefore to carefully prepare for the event, set out clear expectations on behaviour and draw employee’s attention to the relevant policies and procedures. Employees need to understand the impact of their actions (be it drunken behaviour or lateness) well in advance of the event itself to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.

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