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HR Expert Warns Employers to Avoid Christmas Party Headaches

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A South Wales HR specialist is cautioning employers to be aware of potential issues around office Christmas parties which might land them in hot water.

Clare Davies, who is the Head of HR Services at JCP Solicitors, is reminding employers to be aware of the pitfalls around staff behaviour and hi-jinks, social media misuse, and staff care, which may arise at Christmas party time.

Clare says: “Clearly everyone wants to let their hair down at the office Christmas party and it is an event we all look forward to, make plans for and enjoy.

“Getting together socially, away from the tensions of the office, is an important part of fostering good relationships with colleagues  - and sometimes getting together with colleagues outside the office can help resolve niggling interpersonal issues that have been getting in the way of harmonious relations.

“But the combination of lots of alcohol, the release of a year’s worth of workplace stress, and the hubris of the holiday season can be a heady brew.

“It can lead to legal issues for employers – particularly since employers can be held vicariously responsible for any harassment, bullying, violent or discriminatory acts from their staff which take place in the course of their employment – even at a social gathering. 

“Generally it is established that employers can avoid liability for practical jokes in the workplace if they can show that the employees involved were acting on a “frolic of their own” - doing something utterly unconnected with their work.
“But legally, there are risks, so I would strongly advise employers, long before you issue Christmas party invites, to make sure your staff are aware of your written company policies on standards of behaviour expected at social events.
“You are quite within your rights to do this. Remember - your staff members are representing the company even if your party is going ahead off the premises.
Clare adds: “Social media is such an integral part of people’s life now that they post photo of themselves to Facebook at events without thinking about it. 

“But if you are an employer it is wise to impress upon your employees that photos of them in compromising situations may reflect badly upon them and upon you as an employer, regardless of whether they state their place of work on their social media profiles.

“It is also important to remind staff that online banter between colleagues could be seen as harassment by some. 

“A *well-known employment tribunal springs to mind where staff members from a big phone company wrongly ‘outed’ a colleague on Facebook using his phone. 

“The employer was held liable for this in a subsequent discrimination case. Admittedly, these actions occurs in the workplace, not at an office party, but still, the case should be seen as a cautionary tale, I think, for employers.”

“Excess alcohol is a great dis-inhibitor so think carefully if you are planning an unlimited free bar.  You should also consider whether you have any employees under the age of 18 to ensure that no underage drinking takes place during your event.  

“It is also sensible to consider beforehand how staff are going to get home, once the last party popper has popped. Pre-arranging taxis and group lifts helps to put a limit on the alcohol consumed and ensures everyone gets home safely. 

“The Equality Act also raises issues about the importance of treating all employees fairly and with equal courtesy - be aware of your employees’ different religious or cultural affiliations when it comes to food and alcohol and of any special access needs of disabled staff. 

“If you know you have done all you can to be a responsible employer, the Christmas party will be a fun, stress-free affair for you.”