Office party pitfalls for bosses to watch out for
11 Dec 2023
Published in: Member News
Office parties are a December fixture for many businesses but there is a lot that can go wrong, so sensible planning beforehand is vital to make sure you, and your business, aren’t left with faces as red as Rudolph’s nose.
Happy Christmas, Season’s Greetings, Feliz Navidad, Nadolig Llawen – however you say it, the festive season is upon us again and thoughts in HR departments across the land are turning to the office party.
Love them or loathe them – and there are many people in each camp – office parties are a December fixture for many businesses. But they are infamous for a reason. There is a lot that can go wrong, so sensible planning beforehand is vital to make sure you, and your business, aren’t left with faces as red as Rudolph’s nose.
While that prank pulled by Kevin from accounts might seem funny when everyone is relaxed and off-guard, will it be quite so entertaining when it’s gone viral on social media and your company's name is being trashed?
Julia Fitzsimmons, head of employment law and HR support at Midlands law firm FBC Manby Bowdler, looks at some of the common party pitfalls – and explains how you can help avoid disasters and sort out the consequences if something goes wrong.
Don’t force the fun
Unless your party is in office time and you’re paying all the costs, think very carefully about saying or even hinting that attendance is compulsory. You might think a three-course black tie dinner at a fancy hotel is a treat, but the single mum on minimum wage might not appreciate having to fork out for babysitters, taxis and a posh frock.
It’s worth remembering as well that at least some of your employees won’t celebrate Christmas at all. They might be happy to join in the festivities anyway, but make sure you’re not inadvertently excluding or discriminating against anyone when you’re making arrangements.
You also need to check the venue carefully to make sure it is accessible for all employees, and partners if they are invited, remembering that not all disabilities are visible. For example, if one of your employees is light-sensitive epileptic, a disco with flashing and strobing lights is going to leave that person either excluded from the event . . . or very ill.
And, for some people, even the prospect of a big social occasion is just torture. No-one should be made to feel that their bosses think less of them, or that their job and promotion prospects might be damaged, just because they can’t face the office Christmas party.
Childcare, caring responsibilities, transport and health issues can all make some people reluctant to go out on a cold, dark night in December.
Be mindful of everyone that works for you and plan accordingly. If getting in food and drink and holding a lunchtime party in your own premises is the best option for most people, then do that. A party doesn’t need to be lavish to be fun.
Cheers – or jeers
So many problems at this time of year have alcohol as a root cause, and office parties are no different.
While it’s nice to buy your employees a drink to say thanks for a great year’s work, too much alcohol can make some people lose their inhibitions and behave in a way they wouldn’t dream of sober.
One great way to avoid such issues is to have an alcohol-free event – or at least alcohol-free tables. A festive-themed afternoon tea party, for example, makes a wonderful change from the traditional Christmas do and is incredibly inclusive at the same time.
If some alcohol is on the menu, lay out the ground rules before the event about the standards of behaviour you expect, and again make sure there is a plentiful supply of soft drinks.
And if you’re providing food, make sure you have catered for all tastes and dietary needs. Vegans, vegetarians, coeliacs and those with nut or dairy allergies will all need something different on the menu – and make sure everything is well labelled!
Finally, if you are providing alcohol at your party, think about how everyone is getting home and consider organising taxi shares in advance.
Stamp out harassment
Cracker jokes about what goes on in the photocopier room might raise a smile, but incidences of sexual harassment and assault rocket at this time of year. Failing to protect employees from harassment and abuse at the Christmas party has seen companies found liable at employment tribunals.
If you have organised the party you have a duty of care to everyone there. Again, accepted standards of behaviour need to be emphasised well before anyone raises the first glass – and you must take any reports of harassment after the party seriously.
This isn’t restricted to sexual abuse allegations, of course – fighting, physical assault and verbal abuse should all be cracked down on.
It’s worth asking a couple of managers to keep a sober eye on things so any flashpoints can be nipped in the bud before they get out of hand.
The day after the night before
If your party is the day before a normal working day, you can expect some sore heads as people head to their desks the morning after.
Make sure employees are aware that unauthorised absences or ‘sickies’ will be dealt with and could lead to disciplinary action.
You also need to be aware of your health and safety obligations – if you know that Dan the van driver sank 10 pints of beer last night, it’s on you to make sure he doesn’t get behind the wheel and endanger himself or anyone else at work.
Going viral . . .
In the old days – like way back in the 1990s! - bad behaviour at the office party might have led to a bit of embarrassment and leg pulling, but it was generally forgotten about pretty soon.
Now, we have social media. With everyone carrying a camera and the means to broadcast live images in their pockets, the risk of incidents “getting out” are huge. And if your company name is emblazoned over the images, it is your company that will suffer the reputational damage.
Most companies have a social media policy which outlines what employees can and can’t post in relation to their work. If you don’t have one, get one drawn up – and ensure it makes clear that any activity on social media which could harm the reputation of the business might result in disciplinary action.
Here to Help
Whether it’s drawing up a social media policy, handling a serious allegation of sexual misbehaviour or taking disciplinary action against Dan the van driver for turning up to work drunk, FBC Manby Bowdler’s HR Support team can help you avoid some pitfalls and pick up the pieces if things go wrong.
Visit the HR Support | HR Legal Advice | FBC Manby Bowdler LLP (fbcmb.co.uk) for information about how we can help.
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