It’s the time of year where most people begin to enjoy the festivities surrounding Christmastime. Lots of alcohol, team bonding, and inside jokes are among the things that make for memorable nights with colleagues. But lurking beneath the surface of the office Christmas party is the major risk employers face when deciding to host a work party.
Striking the right balance between all the possible risk factors can feel like walking a tightrope – but it doesn’t have to. Having a clear plan and the right knowledge behind you can help you avoid being on the HR naughty list.
Choosing the theme, menu choices, and venue aren’t the only things you need to plan for a workplace Christmas party.
From an HR perspective, one of the most important parts of planning any work-related social gathering is setting clear boundaries and expectations. Your partygoers need to know what behaviour is expected of them at these events, especially when alcohol is involved.
Often the line between workplace and party gets blurred in work events as employees forget they are attending a work event and not just having a good night out. These blurred lines can cause a whole range of problems from inappropriate conversations to offensive, and even discriminatory, behaviour.
Excessive alcohol consumption is typically the primary culprit when it comes to inappropriate behaviour at office Christmas parties.
Drink-fuelled arguments can result in bullying, violent altercations, and sexual harassment. These issues can quickly develop into grievances, disciplinaries, and dismissals which, in turn, have the potential to bring about disputes and legal proceedings.
You may want to consider limiting the amount of alcohol available and decide whether an open or free bar is necessary for everyone to have a good time.
Communicating the standard of behaviour you expect from employees is essential to prevent issues as you enter the silly season.
Whilst it’s important to communicate this immediately before any Christmas parties, we also recommend sending reminders throughout the festive period. It’s as easy as sending a simple email reminding employees that any relevant workplace policies (such as harassment, bullying, social media use, etc.) will still apply during work parties.
Everyone loves a party – or do they?
It’s no secret that as a society we enjoy a culture of work parties and celebrations, but not everyone loves parties.
Parties can present significant issues to those with disabilities. Not all venues are accessible for people with physical impairments, so ensuring your party destination has appropriate access means these individuals aren’t excluded. You should also consider any neurodiverse employees and those with hidden disabilities too.
Another thing to keep in mind is that not everyone celebrates Christmas. If you have a mix of cultures in your workplace, be sensitive with organising Christmas-centric events like Secret Santa or Christmas jumper days.
You may choose to do some research and discover events and customs important to the cultures represented in your business. Celebrating these events with your employees is a great way to improve team relationships and diversity.
Dietary restrictions also play a large part in the enjoyment of parties for some people.
There are many reasons why someone may have a dietary restriction: religious or cultural observations, food allergies or intolerances, medical conditions, and ideological beliefs. If you’re offering food at your event, check for dietary restrictions during your planning stage to avoid anyone being left hungry during the party.
Similarly, ensuring you have soft drinks and non-alcoholic alternatives available is crucial for a successful work party. Some businesses will have employees under the legal drinking age or those who choose not to drink.
Having non-alcoholic alternatives also helps to alleviate the pressure to drink that some feel at company social events. A study by Wildgoose (2022) showed that 44 per cent of employees aged 21-24 would avoid work events due to the pressure to drink alcohol.
Nobody wants to feel excluded because of their personal, cultural, or ideological beliefs, so ensure you are catering to the needs of everyone in your business.
Out on the dancefloor
The day has arrived and it’s time to get partying. How can you avoid issues during the party?
You may want to nominate someone from the management team to stay sober. Having someone with a clear head will make it much easier to tackle any problems that may appear as soon as they happen.
If incidents can’t be dealt with informally, ensure your grievance and disciplinary policies and procedures are followed properly.
Try to keep track of who’s been drinking to ensure they don’t attempt to drive themselves home. Help with arranging transport home if you haven’t pre-arranged coaches or taxis.
You should also be on the lookout for any under-18s in attendance. Actively monitor anyone under 18 to keep them safe during the party.
Your employees will want to let loose and have some fun. Don’t let the risk of incidents occurring stop you from having a good time too. Your Christmas party can still be a success providing you maintain the balance between enjoying yourself and managing risk.
You might think that once the party ends, so does your responsibility as an employer. However, this may not be the case.
As an employer, you’re responsible for the health and safety of your employees which can potentially extend to an employee’s conduct when leaving a work-organised party as well. If an incident occurs during an afterparty not planned by the business, you could still face liability charges.
If any complaints of party-related behavioural issues do arise in the following days, ensure they are dealt with promptly. If an investigation is required, follow the disciplinary procedures outlined in your policy.
You’ll also need to consider how people will get home from your party or event. Any employee who has consumed alcohol must not be permitted to drive home. Perhaps you can book a coach or a few taxis ahead of time to ensure everyone has a plan B.
It may be a good idea to keep an eye out for social media posts that could hurt your business or employees’ reputations. Media outlets and competitors may try to capitalise on undesirable images or behaviours.
A good post-party strategy is to take stock and conduct an analysis of the event:
- What went well?
- What went wrong?
- Is there anything you wouldn’t want to repeat next year?
- What could be improved?
If anyone strayed from the guidelines set before the party, you may want to consider banning them from future events. Follow through on your boundaries and take disciplinary action if necessary.
One of the most popular festive events is Secret Santa, but this has the potential for disaster when organised in the office.
Many people opt for the funny or novelty gift, but this must be approached with caution. Different tastes in humour can lead to some uncomfortable and inappropriate gift exchanges.
If employees are not given guidance on gift-giving, someone may receive a present they find offensive. This can open employers up to personal liability and discrimination claims if the gifted item can be considered discriminatory in nature.
The tribunal will look to the recipient’s response as a test for the impact of the incident, no matter the intention behind the gift.
Another issue that often crops up is the price tag associated with Secret Santa gifts. If there’s no spending limit attached to the game you will find that some employees may receive extravagant gifts, while others don’t.
Establishing a budget is the easiest way to combat this. Keeping the limit lower makes the game more accessible for those who may be struggling financially, especially as the cost-of-living increases.
To avoid unwrapping any issues, clearly set the rules and etiquette beforehand and ensure employees know that participation is optional.
The naughty list
It can be hard to know what boundaries to set on Secret Santa gifts. What should be a light-hearted and fun game can turn ugly when inappropriate presents are received.
As an employer, you should have a good understanding of the culture and atmosphere in your workplace. You may find that you can lean more into the novelty and funny gifts if you know your employees have that sort of relationship.
But in general, it’s best to steer clear of anything sexual or religious in nature, personal hygiene products, or gifts related to body image. Anything related to protected characteristics under discrimination laws should also be a big no to prevent any discriminatory claims.
When it goes wrong
In the case of Shirley Lyons v Starplan Furniture Limited, an office Christmas party was the downfall of her previously good working relationships with her colleagues.
The only woman at the party in 2017, Shirley Lyons claimed a colleague from Starplan had touched her bottom, hugged her from behind without her consent, and made comments about her breasts.
An employment tribunal said that amounted to unlawful sexual harassment.
Ms Lyons worked as a designer and sales consultant for the furniture company in Portadown, Northern Ireland. She told BBC News NI that she was “totally disgusted” by her colleague’s behaviour and made it clear she was not happy about the incident.
After making a formal complaint with her manager, Ms Lyons said her employer failed to protect her and she was victimised by some of her colleagues. As she no longer felt safe or comfortable going into work, the 60-year-old felt she had no option but to resign after nearly five years of service.
The tribunal upheld the complaints of victimisation and said it included ignoring and excluding her and threats to ‘take her down’. It also found use of intimidating and abusive language and behaviour towards Ms Lyons.
Her case was heard in 2018, and she was awarded £18,857.18 in compensation. The tribunal also found that the company did not have any guidelines or establish any standards of behaviour surrounding alcohol consumption.
Is it worth it?
You may be thinking, is it even worth the risks to throw a party? We believe so.
While there may be a lot of negativity and doubt around hosting an office Christmas party, there’s also a lot of benefits.
Work-organised social events create fantastic opportunities for team members to bond and develop stronger relationships. Christmas parties also provide time to celebrate achievements and thank employees for their hard work throughout the year.
Effective communication and careful planning will help you manage the risks associated with office parties without turning you into the Grinch.
Top tips for surviving the holiday season
- Communicate expected standards throughout the festive season
- Don’t tell your employees what you expect of them just once, send a few reminders to ensure they are aware of the consequences of inappropriate behaviour.
- Be inclusive
- Ensure you’re catering to the needs of all employees in terms of accessibility, dietary needs, and cultural or religious considerations.
- Set guidelines for gift-giving
- Clearly set the rules and spending limit to prevent offensive or unacceptable gifts and ensure employees know that participation is optional.
- Deal with problems as they emerge
- Consider appointing a member of management to stay sober during events with alcohol to deal with any incidents as soon as they occur.
- Have fun
- Remain vigilant and on the lookout for inappropriate behaviour, but don’t forget to join in with the festivities with your employees.
Looking for more festive HR advice?
Why not check out our tips for office party planning?