Christmas comes but once a year. If you are the sort of person who looks on it as an opportunity for receiving gifts, once a year may seem like a long time to wait. If, on the other hand, Christmas represents a potential mine field of office Christmas parties, choosing appropriate staff gifts, moderating secret Santa pranks, balancing annual leave requests and trying to achieve output and business efficiency when the minds of some have already moved to sun, sand and surf, then Christmas can be a little less appealing… So, to make life easier and in the spirit of giving, we’ve set out below some tips for managing potential employment issues this festive season.
To be clear from the outset, it isn’t about eliminating fun, nor are we advocating giving Christmas a ‘miss’ – indeed, becoming the Grinch who stole Christmas may just raise its own set of new issues. Instead, like most things employment law related, it is about taking a realistic and common sense approach to any issues that arise.
Not everyone celebrates Christmas
As a starting point, not everyone celebrates Christmas. If there are people of different nationalities and/or religious beliefs in your workplace, it is worth bearing in mind that they may not be celebrating Christmas. This could be an ideal time for them to educate their colleagues on the festivities they observe but be mindful, not everyone is interesting in or comfortable talking about their beliefs or their personal life.
It is also important to bear in mind other people’s beliefs/cultures/traditions when organising social functions as they may impact on what people can eat and/or prevent the consumption of alcohol. In a large organisation, not every social function will be to everyone’s liking, but human nature is that people like to feel included and as though their preferences were taken into account.
Social media and social occasions
It is true, no matter what strategies and safeguards you put in place, there will often be one employee who surprises or shocks – and commonly not in a good way. But for most people and organisations, the biggest issues we see could often have been avoided if expectations were clear at the outset.
Take the office Christmas party for example. Consider issuing a memo or an email (depending on the size of your organisation) to employees which covers: location (specifying whether the event is on your premises or offsite), timing (is there a particular finish time), what drinks will be served (and expectations about consumption), what food will be served, entertainment (and the tone of the evening/event) standards of dress expected, whether guests are invited, what arrangements (if any) are available for transport home. The memo should also clearly outline an expectation that while it is a social occasion and people are expected to enjoy themselves, they are also expected to behave appropriately and that anyone who is intoxicated will not be served alcohol.
As a responsible host, it is important to make sure that you serve an appropriate amount of food if people are drinking. Issues around food and alcohol consumption can be removed by holding the function off-site where the venue has responsibility for the service and consumption of alcohol and any related issues. If you are serving alcohol on your premises, as well as making sure your employees know what you expect of them – make sure you know what you are obliged to do as a responsible host. Hiring outside staff to serve alcohol is often a good idea as it ensures that no staff have to ‘work’ during the work function but it also means that it is a third party that is dealing with any issues arising from the service or consumption of alcohol. That said, as a responsible employer it pays to have someone (or some people) designated as being in charge and having responsibility for the function, who will deal with any issues if they arise.
Social media is also becoming a growing issue. For this reason you can avoid potential issues if you make it clear what your position on it is. For example, make it clear to employees if you don’t want pictures from the staff Christmas function appearing on social media sites and remind them of any restrictions that you may have in place regarding communicating about employment with your organisation.
Secret Santa, and work gifts
They say ‘tis better to give than to receive (although most of us do like to receive as well). Again, common sense needs to prevail in gift giving. If your office is going to do secret Santa (or the like) make sure an appropriate spending limit is set, so that employees aren’t excluded unnecessarily due to financial constraints. While levity and light hearted fun is fine, remind employees that not everyone may share their sense of humour and if they are not sure about a potential joke or the reaction of the intended recipient, perhaps they should consider checking it with a colleague (or a manager) first.
When giving gifts to employees (which isn’t compulsory but is common) make sure employees aren’t left out. Particularly in a small environment, employees are likely to discuss what they received. Potential issues can be avoided by being transparent about the gift giving process and giving the entire office the same gift. If a more personal approach is preferred, care should be taken to ensure employees don’t draw negative conclusions about the employer’s view of them based on their Christmas gift compared with that of a colleague. Christmas gifts aren’t an entitlement so one would hope that an employee would receive a gift in the spirit in which it was given, but equally, a comparatively small Christmas gift will often be described on a list of alleged transgressions by an employer as evidence of unfair treatment giving rise to a disadvantage or worse, constructive dismissal.
‘Tis the season to be jolly – but still work hard
Long lunches, client functions, ducking out to get the last minute shopping done... Sometimes it may feel that employees already have one foot out the work door and are taking advantage of the holidays early. It may depend on your industry or your workflows as to whether you are dealing with a Christmas rush. Retail is of course expected to be busy and professionals are often busy as clients want to tie up loose ends before the year end so that they can start afresh in the New Year.
If you feel employees are taking advantage, the first step should generally be a quiet word to reinforce expectations about working hours. Consider whether some flexibility may work in your organisation, in the circumstances. For example, provided employees are making up the time during the day either before or after normal work hours, that may resolve the issue. However, if that is not the case, remind employees (either the particular employee or a general reminder to all employees) about what is expected. It is important if you are going to allege a breach of an obligation that you can establish that the employee was aware of the obligation/expectations.
If you do have issues that your organisation wants to deal with before the end of the year, consider whether strategically it is the best time. For example, employees are often already under stress at this time of the year, with family and/or financial pressures. So, if an organisation proposed a restructuring that may result in the disestablishment of the employee’s role, the employee could react more negatively and may be more likely to challenge it. While the business’s commercial needs will be paramount, it is worth bearing in mind the broader context. Equally, there is an argument to be made that in good faith, a fair and reasonable employer would let an employee know as soon as possible, so that for example the employee doesn’t extend themselves over the Christmas season, only to be faced with possible redundancy in the New Year. Again, it will depend on the facts and the circumstances but the point is – consider the facts and the circumstances in assessing what your organisation wants to achieve and the best way to go about it.
With all that in mind, enjoy the festive season. Take the opportunity to celebrate your successes to date and take a break before starting again, hopefully refreshed, in the New Year. The strategies above aren’t intended to take the fun out of the festive season, but rather, to ensure that the festive season doesn’t take the fun out of your organisation’s New Year. Putting in place simple strategies to avoid and/or deal with issues is a better option than crossing your fingers and saying ho, ho, ho I hope we don’t get a personal grievance!