Christmas 2021 will represent the first time that most employers will have had an opportunity to organise an event for all their employees in almost two years. This is great news and will represent for most people a further shift back to normality after the string of Covid based restrictions since March 2020. However, because Covid has still not gone away, and because employees may become a little overexcited at their first proper social work function for a long time, this year extra caution may be required to protect your employees and to ensure that your Christmas party passes without incident.
There will be two main things to consider for employers this year. The first will be remaining safe and ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place with regards to Covid, the second will be attempting to ensure that employees attending a party conduct themselves properly.
Looking at the first issue of Covid, there is not much by way of legal guidance at this stage. The government’s messages have been somewhat mixed again, and whilst it has become mandatory to wear masks in public spaces such as shops and on public transport, the government does not currently see any issue with mass gatherings such as Christmas parties, and there is no guidance on whether they should go ahead or whether any measures should be taken if they do.
What this means for employers is that it is business as usual and that any measures that may or may not be put in place are for the employer to decide.
As a starting point, there is no legal requirement to put any measures in place. Employers will have to instead consider whether they need to put measures in place, or whether they feel they should, and if so, what might those measures be. In making this decision, employers should have regard to any employees that may be vulnerable or at risk and should consider whether the failure to put any measures in place might place that person at more risk or might mean they cannot attend. Employers should also consider any measures that they already implement in the office during normal working hours. In theory, there is no reason to take fewer measures during a Christmas party than you do during normal working hours, however, this will also come down to the practicalities, for example, if you have placed screens between desks, this won’t be possible during a Christmas party. Employers may also find it difficult to enforce mask-wearing at a Christmas party, not least because employees will be eating and drinking and for most of the evening will not be able to wear a mask.
There will be steps that are more straightforward to make such as setting up sanitising stations, asking employees to take lateral flow tests before attending the event and placing restrictions on sharing drinks, cutlery, and food during the event itself. Employers should seek specific health and safety advice if they are unsure whether they are taking sufficient steps or the right ones.
It is often overlooked by employers, but a Christmas party is considered to be an extension of the workplace. This means that employees can and should be held to the exact same standards that they are held to during their normal working hours. Both employers and employees often forget this, particularly where alcohol is consumed. However, it is important that employees continue to be held to the same standards and that proportionate action is subsequently taken where applicable if misconduct is proven. Failing to take action against an employee that is guilty of misconduct during a Christmas party sets a very dangerous precedent for future years and, if there is a victim of the misconduct it could lead to a breakdown in trust and confidence and allow them to make a claim against the business.
Employees often defend their actions at Christmas parties by arguing that the employer-provided the alcohol, so it is their fault, but ultimately, it remains up to the employee to behave properly and manage their own alcohol intake.
It is up to each individual employer to decide how to address any possible conduct issues in advance. The most sensible approach appears to be quite simple to remind all employees in advance of attending the party of the fact that it is an extension of the workplace and that they can be disciplined for any conduct issues as normal for any actions during the Christmas party. Make it clear that there will be a zero-tolerance approach to unacceptable and unprofessional behaviour and that employees should take care of how much alcohol they consume and how they act during the party. Whilst you can make it clear you do not expect them not to have fun and take the opportunity to let their hair down, this can still be done sensibly and without committing acts of misconduct.
In some cases, employees may arrange their own Christmas celebrations, perhaps between just their team or department. Normally, these events would also be considered to be an extension of the workplace and the same warnings should be given in advance.
Where there is alleged misconduct during a Christmas party, it is important that action is taken promptly to address the issues. Although after the party will generally be the lead up to Christmas which can be a difficult time to take action, it is essential that investigations are carried out straight away so that accurate statements can be taken, and a proper picture of the allegations can be established. It is not an excuse for an employer to wait until after Christmas if there was an opportunity to deal with the matter sooner and it could affect the fairness of any outcome if there is an unnecessary delay.
It is always our hope that employers have an incident-free Christmas period during which their employees take the chance to have fun without taking it too far. Unfortunately, though, the reality of the situation is that once alcohol is consumed it is almost inevitable that some issues will arise. If they do, the employer’s response becomes very important. Not only does the response need to be prompt, but the employment procedures need to be correct, and any action taken needs to be proportionate.
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