Christmas in the Workplace

Its beginning to look a lot like Christmas and for some it’s the best and busiest time of the year, for others it’s when the work starts to drop off. Regardless of which camp you fall into, for some Companies, the winter and Christmas period can be a minefield of HR issues.

Workplace Christmas parties being at the top of the list along with holiday entitlement and ‘no-show’ employees after the office soirée.

What can employers do on the run up to the festive season?

Most businesses have a policy within their Employee Handbook regarding ‘Representing the Company’ (Including Social Events) or Harassment & Bullying. These policies cover a multitude of information including conduct matters, the implications of excess alcohol consumption and behaviour which is viewed as harassment.

The question that a lot of employers ask, is ‘do I really need to be putting a policy in place for a work-related social event?’ To which the simple answer is yes and we’ll now explain why.

Employers have a duty of care towards employees which can extend to work-related social events, even those that take place outside working hours. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are liable for acts of discrimination, harassment and victimisation carried out by their employees in the course of employment unless they can show they took steps to prevent such acts.

If you do not have a policy, we would advise you to issue a statement to employees in advance of the Christmas party or any work-related event just reiterating the rules and expected standards of conduct. By doing so you will be reducing your vicarious liability for the actions of your employees.
Can an employee be disciplined for misconduct at a Christmas Party?

We would caution against knee jerk reactions when dealing with incidents which happen at social gatherings. However, if the incident is sufficiently closely connected to work to have had an impact on the working situation, then the answer is yes, employees may be disciplined. If two or more employees are involved in the same incident, then all employees should be investigated, and this should be done by someone who didn’t witness the incident or was involved in any way.
What if an employee comes to work late or not at all on the day after the Christmas party?

An employer can make deductions from employees’ pay if they turn up late for work the morning after the company Christmas party, so long as the right to make deductions from wages for lateness is detailed in the employment contract or handbook.

Where an employee does not attend due to illness, the employer should follow its attendance management policy and procedures.

Offering an attendance allowance to encourage workers not to take time off sick, as the retailer Argos has reportedly done in its distribution centres, may appear attractive. However, it carries the serious risk of an indirect disability discrimination complaint that may be difficult to justify.

What if my staff refuse to work overtime and the run up to Christmas?

If the contract of employment includes a clause requiring an employee to work overtime when required to meet the needs of the business, then it will generally be reasonable to take disciplinary action if an employee refuses to do so.

Can an employee insist on taking holidays during the Christmas Period?

No, the rules don’t change at Christmas and the same principle applies that holidays need to be approved by the employer before they are taken. In the absence of an agreement usually within a contract or employee handbook, workers must give notice equal to twice the length of the holiday that they wish to take.

The employer can give counter notice requiring that the leave not be taken, so long as this counter notice is equivalent to the length of the holiday requested, and the worker is not prevented from taking the leave to which he or she is entitled in that holiday year.

Where an employee has accrued leave and gives reasonable notice to the employer to take the leave, the employer must have valid business reasons for refusing the employee’s request to take leave.

Where an employee insists on taking leave and does so without approval, the employer should approach the issue sensibly and be careful not to impose a disproportionate penalty on the employee.

Can employers require employees to take annual leave during the Christmas period?

For businesses that close over the Christmas period, employers will need to put in place arrangements requiring workers to take annual leave at that time, this is usually specified in the employment contract.

Employers can allocate leave to a particular time, as long as there is no agreement which contradicts this.

An employer needs to give notice that is at least double the period of leave that the employee is required to take. In practice, employers who shut down at Christmas or for bank holidays or other religious festivals will usually have this built into their contracts or employee handbooks.

What if travel disruption delays an employee returning to work following the Christmas break or during the winter period?

This can be a common issue, particularly given planned strike action on rail services over the Christmas period or due to bad weather.

While there is no obligation to pay employees who fail to attend work due to public transport issues or bad weather, many employers will want to offer flexibility and alternative options.

For example, if appropriate, the employee may have the ability to work from home or from another location. Alternatively, the employer could require the employee to make up the time later or take the time as paid annual leave.

As always, if you have any queries please do not hesitate to call Spectra HR on 0161 926 8519 or email our HR Consultants on Amrita.Govindji@thespectragroup.co.uk or Alison.Kirk@thespectragroup.co.uk

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