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13

Dec 2017

Challenges of the festive season: an employer’s guide

Goodwill may be in short supply when you start to receive a flurry of holiday requests for the Christmas and New Year period or if winter travel disruption leaves you short staffed. The Christmas party could also end in more than just a hangover if clashes between co-workers result in claims of assault, if unwanted attention leads to allegations of sexual harassment or posts on social media damage your reputation. 

Emma Thompson, employment law specialist at Thackray Williams explains how planning ahead for the festive period can help to reduce any risks to your business.

Holiday requests

Some employers take a first come, first served approach to holiday requests for the festive period, but this may not be seen as the fairest approach, particularly if you also have a policy that only allows a certain number of team members to be off at any one time.

An alternative approach might be to ask your staff to put in their requests as soon as possible but to explain at the outset that, where competing requests for the same dates are made, a weighing-up exercise will have to be carried out which takes account of a number of factors, such as the need to provide childcare or to travel overseas to visit relatives.  Consideration may also be given to who had the dates off last year and whether those who missed out ought to be given priority this year.  

Provided there is no discrimination at play, and you are transparent in your dealings with staff, adopting this sort of approach may be seen as a fairer way to deal with what is always going to be a tricky issue.

Winter travel disruption and snow days

Snow days are great fun for children, but disruptive for employers with a reduced workforce because staff cannot get to work or because parents have to look after children whose school has closed.  Planning ahead really can help here, particularly if the work undertaken by your employees does not depend on staff being in the office.

Where practicable, you should start thinking about whether it would be possible for affected employees to work from home.  If it would be, you could consider making it a term of your contracts of employment that where an employee cannot get into the office they will be expected to work remotely instead.  Arrangements will need to be made to facilitate this, including the provision of any necessary equipment and the creation of remote access rights to connect into your IT systems.  You will also need a notifications procedure requiring employees unable to get into work to tell you this within, say, 30 minutes of their usual start time.

You do not have to pay an employee who cannot get to work due to travel conditions, unless they have agreed to work from home instead. However, you may consider that the damage to morale caused by withholding an employee’s salary in these circumstances outweighs the financial burden of paying for the period of absence, particularly if it is short. 

Remember that parents have the right to a reasonable period of unpaid time off to look after a dependant in circumstances such as a school closure. However, where possible, employees must try to sort out a longer-term arrangement if the closure looks set to continue.

The Christmas party

The fall-out from the Christmas party can be sobering. Even if it takes place out of office hours and away from the workplace, you could well be held liable for an employee’s sexual harassment or violent behaviour at a work social event. You may, however, escape liability where employees choose to continue with their night out after the party ends, as a recent court case shows.  In the case in question, Bellmand v Northampton Recruitment Ltd [2016], an employer managed to avoid liability for a personal injury claim brought by an employee who had suffered irreversible brain damage when a punch from his managing director knocked him to the floor. The connection between the assault and the managing director’s employment was said to have been broken because the employee and his colleagues had chosen to move on from the Christmas party to a hotel in order to continue their drinking session.

Social media

Few employees realise the potential damage that can be done by their use of social media during and after the office party or that it could possibly result in them losing their job.  Even fewer realise that if what they have posted or uploaded concerns a colleague they could end up getting their employer in trouble too.

A comprehensive social media policy which is communicated to all employees in advance of the office party, or indeed any other business-related function, can be a very effective way of highlighting the dangers social media can pose in this sort of situation. 

Reducing risks

Although it may seem heavy-handed, you can take steps that could stop incidents arising at the Christmas party or which at least help prevent your business becoming liable for an employee’s inappropriate acts while there.  These steps include communicating with staff before the party takes place to explain the expected standards of behaviour, to warn them of the disciplinary consequences of inappropriate behaviour and to draw their attention to relevant workplace policies, including your policy on the use of social media and on equality among the workforce.

At the party itself, one or two managers could be responsible for keeping an eye on behaviour. Their role could include determining when it is time to stop serving free drinks at the bar and if anyone needs to be put in a taxi and sent home.  

The morning after

If the next day is a working day, this may bring unauthorised absences and lateness. If you intend to take a tough line on this, make it clear in advance that unauthorised absences will be dealt with under the disciplinary procedure and that a hangover is not an acceptable reason for sickness absence. 

For a confidential discussion about preparing for the festive season, or for any other employment-related matter, please contact Emma.

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