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Christmas parties are back in full swing this year, which is good news for employers who are looking for an opportunity to lift employee mood, show appreciation of their staff and boost engagement. Social events during the festive period can offer colleagues a valuable opportunity to spend time together and have fun in a relaxed, informal environment – something that may seem vanishingly rare given the often frantic pace of work in the current economic climate.

However, employers should take care when organising these types of events to ensure the holiday period is marked in a way that includes everyone and is memorable for the right reasons. This is particularly pertinent in the post-#MeToo era, where sexual harassment issues are reported regularly in the press and new Government-backed legislation has recently received Royal Assent to better protect employees from such harassment at work. Below, we look at steps employers should take to avoid HR-related issues during the forthcoming festive period.

Be inclusive in your party planning

When planning work events, it is important to make sure everyone feels involved (if they want to be) and able to take part. There is no doubt that having fun with colleagues can help to foster a sense of community at work and boost staff morale. But remember that not all employees celebrate Christmas due to their cultural or religious beliefs, and it is important both from an employee relations and a legal perspective that no one is made to feel uncomfortable or left out.  

HR should therefore think carefully about the following:

  • How to promote your event and what any theme should be: Remember that Christmas traditions, including the “Staff Christmas party”, may not be welcomed by all staff. Could promoting the event as an “Annual staff party” rather than a “Christmas party” help to ensure that everyone feels welcome?  The context will be relevant to how you approach this.  For example, if your “Christmas party” is the only all staff event (or largest social) event of the year, calling it an “Annual staff party” is probably sensible to maximise inclusivity. However, if it is one of many annual gatherings which celebrate a range of religious and cultural events, then referring to it as a “Christmas party” may feel the right thing to do.
  • Timing: Consider how you can best ensure that the timing of your event is inclusive.  Late night parties won’t necessarily appeal to everyone. For some staff, such as those with childcare responsibilities, a lunch event might be more convenient.
  • Guest list: Don’t forget to invite employees who are off work on family-related leave.
  • Accessibility: Will your venue be accessible for all staff, including those with disabilities, or do adjustments need to be made? Keep in mind that neurodiverse staff may find a party in a busy bar too loud or overwhelming, so consider whether you can make any changes to better accommodate their needs.
  • Food and drink: When considering catering options and venue choice, remember that not all staff drink alcohol, so you should tell employees ahead of time that non-alcoholic alternatives will be provided.  Some staff may also have special dietary requirements (either due to health issues or religious or cultural beliefs), so make sure these will be catered for.  Perhaps offering afternoon tea and cake might be welcomed as a more inclusive alternative to the typical Christmas (and often alcohol-heavy) menu?  Food for thought.

Make sure it’s alright on the night

It is important to remember that even if you hold your annual staff party off-site, outside of normal working hours, and attendance is entirely optional, you can still potentially be held legally responsible for the actions of your employees. While the new employer duty to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment will not take effect until 26 October 2024, employers that have not set the right tone at their festive events may still be at risk of claims if an incident of harassment occurs.

Given this, you should remind employees in advance that, whilst your staff party is of course a social event, those attending will still be expected to demonstrate the same standards of behaviour as they would in the workplace in accordance with your company’s applicable policies and training (such as Equality Policy and Anti-bullying and Harassment Policy). Make clear that conduct which breaches these standards will not be tolerated and may result in disciplinary action – even if influenced by alcohol. 

Now is a good time to check that your HR policies and procedures are up-to-date and fit for purpose. Speak with your Make UK adviser or email [email protected] if you would like further information about the support Make UK can provide.

Getting home and the morning after

On party night, it can be helpful to nominate certain managers to take responsibility to step in early if necessary to ensure that matters don’t get out of hand. If an employee drinks too much, or starts to behave inappropriately, make sure your ‘nominated hosts’ have authority to arrange for these individuals to make an ‘exit’. 

To reduce the risk of employees’ drink-driving, it is wise to remind employees that they should organise their journey home in advance if they are planning to drink alcohol at the party. Provide them with details of local transport and taxi firm numbers to encourage them to think ahead. If you can lay on transport to and from a venue (or even provide or facilitate overnight accommodation, if appropriate), that will always be appreciated.

Finally, if the day after the party is a normal working day, make clear before the party that all employees are expected to attend work the next day as usual, and that turning up at work still ‘merry’ or hungover is not acceptable!  (If you’re feeling generous, you might consider allowing staff to start an hour later than normal.) Whatever you decide, ensure that you apply any dispensation to all. Be consistent in dealing with absences in the same way you would throughout the year, using your established procedures. 

Don’t just socialise at Christmas

While Christmas work festivities are enjoyed by many, including those who don’t actually celebrate Christmas, staff will appreciate it if you also embrace other cultural and religious occasions during the year (such as Eid al-Fitr, Diwali, Chanukah and Chinese New Year), as this will help to ensure that those with different beliefs feel valued.

Be mindful too that the holidays aren’t a time of cheer for everyone. The current cost of living crisis, along with recent political uncertainty, transport chaos and winter illnesses, may impact how staff feel towards the seasonal build up this year. Many people also find the holiday season hard to navigate for other reasons, for example if they are lonely, have difficult personal relationships, are bereaved, or are affected by certain health issues such as eating disorders or addiction. If your organisation offers an employee assistance programme, or has mental health first aiders/champions, remind staff that these resources are available to provide support (financial, emotional or otherwise).

How we can help

Make UK is here to support you with any guidance you may need during the festive season.  If you are a Make UK subscriber, you can speak to your regular adviser for guidance on any of these issues.  You can also access further information, including template policies and drafting guidance, in the HR & Legal Resources section of our website.  

Make UK offers a package of support aimed at preventing sexual harassment at work, including a template Anti-bullying and harassment policy (including guidance notes), staff surveys (Pulse surveys) and anti-harassment training for staff (micro-awareness video and/or half day workshop). For further details, click here or email [email protected].

Our HR consultants are very experienced in assisting companies with investigation processes, either in a supporting role or running the process as independent investigators. If you need assistance conducting an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and would like to find out how we can help you, email [email protected].

If you are not a Make UK subscriber, our expert HR and legal advisers can offer guidance on a consultancy basis. For further information, contact us on 0808 168 5874 or email [email protected].

News / Make UK / HR & Legal