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The naughty list: Should HR patrol the Christmas party?

Matt Chittock

Conga line

Is Christmas party season the time to let employees bend the rules? Matt Chittock asks what leaders need to do to keep things in line

For HR staff ‘tis the season to get nervous as Christmas parties threaten to spill over into alcohol-fuelled fights, ill advised passion and drunken selfies that go viral for all the wrong reasons.    

Or at least that’s the cliché. But as Tara Rowberry-Duignan from Citrus HR explains, clichés are often clichés because they’re true.

“Most HR people will be able to give you horror stories!” she says.

“I’ve seen it all in my working life: from the office junior getting drunk and going home early to whole workforces not turning up the day after.”

But, outside ‘HR World’ isn’t Christmas the time to let staff cut loose and to turn a bit of a blind eye to naughty behaviour?

Letting office standards slide for the season may sound tempting – especially when the Christmas party rolls around. But, if staff get out of hand it’s often your company that is liable for the consequences, as Tim Scott, an employment lawyer at DWF, explains.

“A Christmas party is an extension of the office environment and the company can be facing very expensive claims as a result of what happens there,” he says.

“The more serious things that can happen are aggressive or violent behaviour, sexual harassment or other forms of discrimination.”

In short, what might seem like over-excited office banter can land you with a fat law-suit and a host of disciplinary issues.

Get your partygoers on the same page

The key to managing this kind of ‘bad’ behaviour is to make sure it doesn’t happen in the first place. As Rowberry-Duignan points out, this begins by making sure everyone is on the same page before festivities start.

“Managers must be proactive in their approach,” she says.

“I urge managers to get ahead and talk to their team upfront about their responsibilities. So, send out a communication saying, ‘We know the party is coming, and we want everyone to have a good time, but please remember that it is still a work function and you’re still expected to behave in the normal framework of business.”

Once you’ve set the guidelines, be proactive about ‘policing’ behaviour at the party itself, balancing having a good time (or trying to) with nipping potential problems in the bud.

“I say to juniour managers: have fun, but remember that you are still responsible for keeping an eye on what’s going on,” says Rowberry-Duignan.

“Quite often problems happen when little things start to brew and nobody does anything about them. Then you could end up with a fully blown fight and a disciplinary process the next day.

“That could be avoided if a manager steps in and just says ‘look – come with me for five minutes and have a break’.”

Move away from the mistletoe

The same goes for potentially over-amorous situations. Often taking people to one side, distracting them and reminding them where they are and what they’re doing can pay dividends.

If this seems daunting, Steve Rockey, Head of People at London restaurant Big Easy says it can help to think of approaching the situation as you would with your friends.

“People are generally able to self-regulate to some extent,” he says.

“But clearly there are some moments when people have had too much and need a nudge into a taxi – just as you’d do with your mates.”

Scott also recommends making sure the venue does their bit to keep things on track.

“Liaise with the venue and have a clear understanding that staff should be letting you know if there’s any trouble and stopping serving people when it’s appropriate,” he says.

It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that booze is behind much disciplinary-worthy behaviour.

Scott recounts a case in which three employees were sacked at a Christmas party after a seven-hour drinking binge paid for by the company. They were sacked – but ended up winning an unfair dismissal claim in large part because the employer provided the free booze.

A sensible plan might be to limit complimentary alcohol to that served with a meal, or encouraging staff to drink soft drinks and offering snacks to slow down absorption of alcohol.

Taken as a whole, these steps might sound Scrooge-like, but can help halt issues before they happen.

And for the people who do break the rules? Well – as the experts say, they should receive the same disciplinary procedures as they would if the misdemeanor had happened in the office.

This might sound harsh – but Rowberry-Duignan says that treating staff differently at Xmas can shore up problems for the future.

“It’s really important to be fair,” she says.

“Take the example of people turning up hung-over and unproductive at work the next day. Some people won’t have gone to the party – for whatever reason – and this can breed resentment if the behaviour is accepted. Of course, the best way to avoid this is by being clear on when staff are expected to be in after the party.”

So, be firm but fair (and stick to mineral water yourself) and you can survive the party season without facing a disciplinary hangover.

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