How to mitigate Christmas party risk

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There are countless opportunities for disaster at the annual Christmas bash but that doesn’t mean employers can’t take precautions against them – here, one industry lawyer reveals the most common legal risks and how to avoid them.

“The most common issues we probably see are whether misconduct by an employee occurred ‘at work’ if it was at the Christmas party and what do with employees who don’t turn up to work the next day, turn up late, or turn up and are noticeably unproductive,” says Laura Scampion, partner at DLA Piper.

“In terms of misconduct at the party, it is important for employers to remember that the same policies, procedures, and contractual obligations can apply not only during working hours, but whenever an employee's actions might reflect on the employer's reputation,” continues Scampion.

While employers may be aware that the same rules apply, many employees won’t be and Scampion suggests giving workers a gentle but unambiguous reminder.

“Employers should provide a clear policy on the standards of behaviour expected and what kind of behaviour is unacceptable,” she says.

“Basically, set the standard by giving employees advice of your expectations.  Codes of behaviour and clear easily understood rules will help.

“Whether that be through the terms of an IEA, drug & alcohol policies, function policies and/or a pre-briefing before the party.  Some employers now even issue a pre-party letter or email to employees that sets out the expectations and makes it clear when it ceases to be a work function.”

Auckland-based Scampion says employers should take the same approach when it comes to managing unproductive employees the following day.

“Again, set the tone and the ground rules prior to the party.  If appropriate in your workplace, make it clear to staff before the party that disciplinary action will be taken against any employee who is late for work (or fails to turn up) the day after the party if there is good reason to believe that the failure to attend or lateness is due to over-consumption of alcohol,” she says. “Employers can take the same line with lack of productivity but it is naturally more difficult to enforce.”

While poor conduct and attendance issues may be the most common risk, Scampion says the biggest legal risks tend to arise from the excess consumption of alcohol.

“Don’t feel like you have to provide an open bar all night – this often encourages excess,” she tells HRM. “Provide alternative drinks that are non-alcoholic or just make it an alcohol free function altogether.”

She also says employers should consider providing transport options where possible or letting employees know well in advance that they’ll need to make their own way home.

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