Julia Shallcrass: Keep control of Christmas spirits

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Employers need to lay down the rules to staff before the party. Photo / Thinkstock
Employers need to lay down the rules to staff before the party. Photo / Thinkstock

Tis the season to be jolly - but not too jolly. Just jolly enough to celebrate your Christmas work do without spreading soot all over your company's name.

Many cases have been decided at the Employment Relations Authority following the aftermath of alcohol and drugs at Christmas parties. Staff and managers have staggered over the line of frivolity and into verbal altercations, physical fights, rash resignations, sexual harassment, unlawful use of drugs, drink spiking and "drunken dunkings".

In one New Zealand case, a staff member was splashed with water and ice during some skylarking, and retaliated. He attempted to dunk his co-worker in the drinks bucket.

The staff member's employer considered the actions inappropriate and aggressive, and that he had injured his workmate. His employer closed the Christmas function.

The worker was summarily dismissed in a meeting, without any prior information or proper consultation.

The Employment Relations Authority found the staff member had been unjustifiably dismissed without proper investigation and without fair and reasonable procedure.

As an employer, you must ensure staff are not injured at workplace parties.

You must take all "practicable steps" to ensure the safety of your employees at work in accordance with the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.

Even if your work-related function is off-site, you should take responsibility for ensuring employees' safety.

Before holding the Christmas party, identify and assess any possible risks or hazards, and take steps to eliminate them.

To protect staff, you need to avoid any potential harassment, bullying and other types of discrimination.

So think twice before pouring copious amounts of cognac for your Christmas elves.

There are ways to keep your Christmas parties under control, while enjoying the benefits of team bonding, and rewarding staff for their hard work.

Before the silly season smiles upon you, consider some tips:

* Check your venue to ensure it is safe.

* Limit the supply of free alcohol, or limit the number of alcoholic beverages available to each employee.

* Do not supply alcohol to staff under the age of 18.

* Provide non-alcoholic drinks, particularly earlier in the evening when staff are likely to be thirsty.

* Provide substantial food that is readily available.

* Arrange alternative means of transport, such as taxi chits or transport to ensure only sober driving.

* Specify a start and finish time before the event.

* Designate some managers to stay sober.

* If your workplace party is off-site, ensure your employees know who to contact if issues arise.

* Keep mistletoe out of sight.

Before holding the Christmas party, communicate your expectations to staff. Clarify that they represent your organisation at work functions.

Send a friendly reminder that they are bound by their employment agreements, workplace policies and procedures and that you can discipline for conduct that occurs at Christmas parties.

You should implement and follow company disciplinary procedures and workplace policies relating to bullying and harassment, alcohol and drugs and social networking.

Tell your employees if they are not allowed to post photos or comments of the Christmas party on social networking sites.

If you haven't already done so, implement a policy about "acceptable standards at work-related social events".

Your policy should provide examples of unacceptable behaviour and misconduct at work functions, such as excessive alcohol consumption, use of illegal drugs and inappropriate language. Set out your expectations regarding attendance the day after the Christmas party, and let staff know the consequences if they breach the policies.

At the venue, rather than role play examples of unacceptable behaviour, you should monitor behaviour and alcohol consumption to ensure workplace policies are followed.

Consider hiring bouncers or security personnel to assist.

Ensure that no further alcohol is served to visibly intoxicated employees.

While I don't want to sound like Scrooge, I'd advise that you don't let your newfound generosity get the better of you at the party.

Beware making any promises about pay rises or promotions that you can't deliver and save yourself from saying "Bah! Humbug!" later.

Unless you have a history of festive tolerance, make sure staff know that they are required at work following the Christmas shindig.

Ensure staff are well aware that you can take disciplinary action if they fail to turn up for work - and you don't consider over-indulging a "sickness" unless they truly have eaten undercooked turkey.

If you have any concerns about staff members' embarrassing, inappropriate or dangerous behaviour, conduct a full and fair inquiry and invoke the usual disciplinary process.

Tread with care where there may be harassment or bullying.

Say cheers to Christmas cheer, but no to too many beers.

Julia Shallcrass is a senior solicitor at Janet Copeland Law.

- NZ Herald

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