Avoiding a Christmas crisis

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As Christmas approaches, employers begin to feel the festive fear that staff will embarrass themselves, land the company in a tribunal and destroy relationships with clients by doing inappropriate things with the photocopier. Paula Matheson, Senior Employment Law Adviser at Empire HR, gives legal advice to help organisations avoid a Christmas crisis.

Q1. How do we keep our reputation intact in front of clients at the Christmas party?
I recently overhead a conversation between some of my employees, they were discussing our forthcoming Christmas party. It sounds like they are planning a big night out. We are having our Christmas do at a 'bring a party to a party' event and, as some of our clients may well be at the same event, whilst I don't want to be a party pooper I am concerned in case anything happens to damage our company reputation.

A. Prior to the Christmas party you should gently remind your employees that when they attend a company event they are still bound by the terms and conditions of their employment and as such should behave appropriately. They are deemed as representing the company.

You should also make them aware that if they do behave inappropriately at the Christmas party then they will be subject to disciplinary action as per the company disciplinary procedures.

Q2. Can we stop staff from partying mid-week?
Many of my employees have several nights out planned in the run up to Christmas and some of them fall on week nights. Everyone has worked hard throughout the year and I want them to have a good time but I am worried that too much partying might affect their ability to do their jobs.

A. Your employees have an obligation to ensure that they are not under the influence of alcohol when at work and a personal responsibility to ensure that they are fit to attend work and carry out their duties. You should inform your employees that whilst you want them to enjoy the Christmas parties and nights out, that normal terms and conditions of employment apply and if anyone does attend for work under the influence of alcohol that they will be subject to the normal disciplinary procedures, which could result in action up to and including summary dismissal.

Q3. Joking about bonuses - Are we now obliged to pay?
This year we held our Christmas party in the middle of November in order to beat the season rush. During the course of the evening, after a couple of glasses of wine, I jokingly made a statement about giving everyone a bonus. I thought at the time that everyone realised that it was a joke but I am beginning to wonder if they are now expecting to see a bonus payment in their December pay packet.

A. Employers should be extremely wary of making any such statements as they can be binding. Although an Employment Tribunal would look at the environment and context in which the statement was made, they could deem it as a legally-binding contractual promise. It is therefore imperative that employers do not make any suggestions or promises in connection with any contractual terms and conditions of employment. It may be advisable for managers to be reminded of this prior to attending company events in order to ensure that they are fully aware of potential implications.

Empire HR provides commercially-focused employment law and HR support service including a telephone advice line, HR consultancy, employment tribunal insurance and health and safety support for businesses across Scotland. Empire HR can be contacted on 01224 701383 or at www.empirehr.com

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15th Dec 2006 12:25

Any company that has a Christmas (or any other) party in the same venue as your clients is asking for trouble. This in my mind is just poor planning and risk assessment!

A party is a party, the opportunity to let your hair down (if you have any). Trying to put conditions on behaviour is like a red rag to a bull. If it is a corporate entertaining event then that is different, it is a party for your clients, but work for your employees.

If a problem occurs I cannot see how an employee can be held responsibly (in terms of damaging the organisations reputation). It is up to management & marketing to make sure any party is booked & managed away from clients.

Mike Morrison

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10th Dec 2006 18:37

This is all good stuff, and a timely reminder........maybe a little late for some by the comment regarding bonuses.

As regards the caution to staff about their behaviour where clients may be present, I believe the message must be clear and very much "to-the-point" rather than a 'gentle reminder'. Too often such reminders are interpreted by the troops as being of less significance than those that strongly confirm what is required, without of course making the message sound like a court martial.

Merry Christmas.

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