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HR issues for employers at Christmas



Christmas is traditionally the season of fun, jollity and too many mince pies, but employers will be making their lists and checking them twice when it comes to HR issues. We’ve delved into our sack and come up with some issues we think will top employers’ Christmas lists.

Six of the best

1. First on the list is the perennial headache for HR managers, the office Christmas party. How do you prevent trouble when a year of frustrations mixes with far too much alcohol? The first thing to do is check up on what the policy is on Christmas parties or work-related social events. There will likely be something in there that lays down what employers expect from their employees at such events.

It’s also a good idea to issue a statement to the workforce in advance of the party, letting them know about the contents of the staff handbook or policy and reiterating the company’s stand on conduct issues including excess alcohol consumption and behaviour that could be construed as harassment.

2. Having issued such a statement, is the employer responsible for what happens at a Christmas party, and how far does that responsibility extend?

It’s safe to conclude that the employer will probably be liable. Legislation on the subject talks about things that happen “in the course of employment” and a lot of court and tribunal time has been taken up deciding exactly what that means. An Employment Tribunal case decided that social events held away from the place of work that involved people from work either coming straight from work or for an event such as a leaving party (or, in our case, a Christmas party) could be classed as “in the course of employment”.

In October 2018, the Court of Appeal decided that a company was vicariously liable for the actions of the MD when, having had far too much to drink at a post-party drinks gathering, he got into an argument with his sales manager and punched him, leaving the man with brain damage.

3. So, somebody’s done something they’ll definitely regret the next morning and it’s caused no end of bother for the company. Can the employee be disciplined for misconduct?

The answer is yes, with certain provisions.

When an employee was involved in a brawl after a Christmas party had finished, the employer dismissed him. The employee made a claim of unfair dismissal based on the fact that the incident happened after the party, but the Employment Tribunal decided that theevents were sufficiently closely connected to work to have affected the working situation.

In another case, the employer supplied a free bar and three employees indulged the employer’s generosity for seven hours. A fight ensued, and the employees were dismissed. They appealed their dismissals and won their case. The Tribunal said that since the employer had provided the free bar, it had, in effect, condoned any behaviour that followed.

4. Some businesses make the decision to close between Christmas and New Year. If you’re one of them, there are some things that you need to consider, amongst which is the question of whether you can require employees to take annual leave during the Christmas period.

If employees have enough holiday entitlement left to cover this period, the employer can require them to use that entitlement to cover the closure period. However, sufficient notice has to be given.

The law says that an employer can oblige an employee to take leave, provided they give them advance warning that’s twice the length of the period of leave being taken.

It’s important to bear in mind that this is calendar days, not working days.

If the employment contract overrides this requirement, the employer has the absolute right to dictate holiday dates and ignore minimum notice requirements.

On a practical note, the employer should, where realistic, let employees know about decisions made on leave requirements as early in the year as possible.

5. Christmas is, for many people, a largely secular event these days, but there are those who hold religious beliefs, not necessarily Christian, and it may be that they will want to take time off for religious festivals and holy days that fall during the Christmas period.

Although there’s no legal requirement for employers to say yes to an employee’s request for time off on religious grounds, it’s good practice to try and fit in as many of those requests as possible, taking into account the commercial needs of the business.

Bearing this in mind, the employer needs to make sure that they are consistent when saying yes or no to such requests and avoid favouring one group at the expense of another with different beliefs (or indeed no beliefs).

6. Employees cooped up alongside each other, no fresh air, the heating on all the time. It’s no surprise that December is party time for coughs, colds and even flu. Employers have probably reconciled themselves to the fact that a proportion of their staff will be off at some point. However, what can be done if there’s a suspicion that an employee is being less than honest about the festive lurgi?

The first thing to remember is that the fact it’s Christmas makes no difference to how a sickness-related absence should be handled, even if the absence leaves the employer in more of a lurch.

Most company policies regarding sickness absence run something like this: Employees should:


  • contact their line manager as soon as possible (in some cases, this is stipulated to be within an hour of the normal start time);

  • outline the nature of the illness;

  • advise when they are likely to be back at work;

  • provide self-certification if the illness has lasted less than seven days, or

  • a written note from their GP if the illness has lasted more than seven days.


In the event that the employee doesn’t follow the employer’s policy on sickness absence and the employer is of the opinion that the absence is either dubious in nature or unauthorised, formal disciplinary proceedings may be on the cards.

Best of the rest

The invitation

Make sure that attendance at the Christmas party isn’t made compulsory.

Catering

When planning both workplace-based events and external ones, remember to ask about dietary requirements.

Getting home

Since an employer could be held responsible for employees driving home from an office party, they should ensure that all staff are made aware of the policy on drinking and driving.

Secret Santa

Staff participating in the Secret Santa should be reminded that all gifts should be inoffensive and appropriate.

Social Media

Tweets or Facebook posts can lead to personal embarrassment and bring the company into disrepute. Ensure staff are made aware of the social media policy and the penalties for breaching it.

rradarstation

rradarstation is a resource available through the AXA MLP where policyholders can access rradar’s legal advisory team over the phone or by email and web portal that provides over 1,000 articles, step by step guidance sheets, forms, sample letters and templates to download relating to running a commercial business including HR issues and how they can be resolved.