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HR guide to surviving the onslaught of festive fiascos

Kate Palmer, HR Advice & Consultancy Director - Peninsula

Christmas is a time of joy for most. But spare a thought for HR teams who face an onslaught of festive fiascos every single year. Here are the 12 Nays of Christmas and the steps businesses can take to avoid becoming the Grinch this holiday period.

On the first day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Carnage at the Christmas party
Celebrating with a few drinks is fine in most cases but having one too many can cause heightened emotions. Drunkenly asking your boss for a raise, telling someone exactly what you think of them, or trying to kiss your office crush at the work party, could leave you with more than just a headache the next day.

HR teams often find themselves dealing with the fallout from verbal or physical confrontations or sexual harassment. Though these incidents may not have taken place in the workplace as such, usual rules do still apply when it comes to work parties. This means that inappropriate behaviour at the Christmas party could result in disciplinary action. It may be useful to remind staff of this prior to events.

If you have employees under the age of 18 ensure that they are not drinking, and you might want to forego the mistletoe to avoid any drama…

On the second day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Two office loves
With the amount of time we spend at work nowadays it’s inevitable that, sometimes, relationships will develop. Workplace relationships can be extremely positive but can also lead to gossip and rumours, especially at this time of year. Increased socialising means lines can get crossed, mistakes can be made and someone who is already in a relationship could have a romantic/sexual liaison with a colleague.

Of course, a drunken fumble is not the same as a full-blown affair, but both scenarios can have disastrous implications, so it’s important for HR to tread carefully.

Employers can manage the situation from the outset by having an office romance policy within their employee handbook. This policy should set out clear and comprehensive guidelines on the company’s stance on this issue. Guidelines can include banning senior and delegate relationships, requiring disclosure of relationships or for seniors to move positions when relationships develop.

Make clear your policy on inter-office romances and expectation of conduct and professionalism should employees enter in to a relationship. Finally, educating employees on sexual harassment policies and their correlation with office romance can reduce liability should romantic involvements turn sour.

On the third day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Online spends
Online shopping can be quick, easy, and cost-effective, but that doesn’t mean it should be done on company time. Rather than simply blocking retail websites, it might be better to educate employees about your company’s internet policy. Employees will still be able to use their designated break times and personal devices to snap up bargains or track down that elusive must-have gift without eating into their productivity.

Another thing to consider is employees having personal packages delivered to the workplace – is this acceptable behaviour or not?

Post-room staff may feel overworked and resentful if they find themselves constantly signing for colleagues’ purchases in an already busy postal season.

On the fourth day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Gifts or illegal perks?
A nice hamper or a bottle of wine makes the perfect Christmas present, but you might want to think twice before gifting someone a jet-ski, or an all-expenses trip to the Maldives to avoid falling foul of bribery laws.

It’s important to know where to draw the line when it comes to giving or receiving gifts from clients or potential clients.

Organisations large and small, should familiarise themselves with the Bribery Act 2010 and have polices in place to help avoid liability from either giving or receiving gifts that could be interpreted as bribes. Keep in mind that gifting should be used to show gratitude and must not be used to influence individuals to act in a certain way, such as to renew important business contracts.

On the fifth day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Elf and Safety
You may think this is all a bit ‘Bah Humbug’… but the stats don’t lie. The National Accident Helpline claims that 2.6 million people have fallen off a stool or ladder whilst hanging up decorations, and 80,000 people a year need hospital treatment during the Christmas period. It’s great to bring the joys of the season into the workplace so go ahead and deck the halls – just without the falls!

Never stand on a table or chair to hang up the decorations, especially an office chair on wheels! Instead ensure you have a ladder to hand and use it safely – that means wearing appropriate footwear (not high heels) and never overreaching.

Pinning things into the wall? It’s probably best you don’t unless you’re certain there’s no wires there….that would be a nasty shock indeed!

Dry trees can go up in flames in a matter of seconds so make sure any trees in the workplace are watered often – or better still, use artificial trees. Be careful of pre-lit fibre optic trees, which could cause a fire hazard. Anything that is being plugged in should be PAT tested to ensure it’s safe to use.

On the sixth day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Next day swaying
When boozy nights turn into woozy mornings, there’s an increased risk of employees coming to work over the legal limit. Whilst it’s difficult to mandate what people get up to outside the workplace, it is useful to remind them of your alcohol and drug policies. People often underestimate the amount of time it takes for alcohol to leave their system, and the number of drink drive arrests in the mornings significantly rises this time of year.

Employers have a duty of care to their employees. If someone comes to work over the limit you must address the situation rather than just turning a blind eye, to avoid any legal or safety issues.

When it comes to jobs that require driving or operating operate heavy machinery there should be zero tolerance towards any use of alcohol or drugs, including when employees are still over the limit from the night before.

The best course of action is to send employees home to sleep it off (ensuring they don’t drive home), followed by a serious discussion once they have sobered up.

On the seventh day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Seven people slipping
The temperatures may plunge, but you certainly don’t want anyone in the workplace doing so! Employers are responsible for ensuring the workplace follows appropriate health & safety standards, taking action to limit risk and potential injury caused by snow and ice.
Employers should keep all walkways cleared of ice and snow, ensure they are well lit and clearly marked. Hazardous areas should be fenced off and ensure any slippery surfaces inside the building are well marked.
Of course, employees need to do their bit to look after their own safety as well, such as wearing sensible footwear and not taking unnecessary risks.

On the eighth day of Christmas, HR gave to me: No team rebuilding
Not everyone celebrates Christmas. With employees having spent so much time working remotely over the pandemic, it’s natural to want to hold some team events now most people are back in the office, but forcing festive activities such as secret Santa, Christmas jumper day and parties could offend or accidentally exclude some people. It’s always best to make them optional.

Remember that many religious holidays take place this time of year – Bodhi Day, Winter Solstice, Hannukah and the Ashura festival to name just a few. Weaving in other cultural celebrations will help all your staff feel appreciated and supported.

On the ninth day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Bonus expectations
They’re nice to receive, but do you have to give employees a Christmas bonus? In short no. Employers are not under any obligation to give staff Christmas bonuses, and many businesses just won’t have the ability to do this given the challenges of the last 2 years.

Of course, if a Christmas bonus is promised in the contract of employment, then that’s a different story. Both employer and employee are bound by the terms of the contract and must follow them.

Bonuses are just that – a bonus to say thank you or reward good performance, rather than an expectation.

On the tenth day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Everyone wants leave
There is no legal right to have Christmas day off – unless it is written into the contract of employment, of course. While most employers try to accommodate all leave requests at this time of year, there may be instances where it just isn’t viable to grant them due to business needs.

It’s easy for employers to fall into the trap of thinking that those with young families should be given priority when it comes to taking time off over Christmas. This isn’t strictly true. Everyone is equally entitled to request annual leave, and this can be an important time of year for many people, not just those with young children.

As an employer the tricky thing is to decide WHO gets that all-important time off. Some factors to consider could include who put their requests in first, who hasn’t had a holiday in a while etc. to ensure that the process is as fair as possible. Be careful not to assume anything when it comes to religious holidays.

Whilst some companies may pay staff higher wages if they must work over the holidays, this isn’t a legal requirement.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Dress down griping
Some companies might want to relax dress codes during December (hello Christmas Jumper Day!) whilst for other businesses, it’s important to maintain a level of standards. An easy way to get into the spirit of the season is to have more dress down days or allow employees to wear festive clothing in the run up to Christmas.

With so many wild and wacky choices of Christmas jumpers and festive outfits to choose from, it’s important to remember that what’s funny to one person could cause great offence to another. Ensure that any dress down outfits don’t include slogans or images that could cause upset.

Whether or not you amend your dress code during the festive season, make sure your expectations are clearly communicated to employees to avoid any misjudgement. And remember, just because you relax the dress code, it doesn’t mean that other standards will follow. Employees are still expected to work as well as having fun in the run up to Christmas.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, HR gave to me: Seasonal suffering
For most people this is a time to make merry and be joyous, but it’s not so easy for everybody. Christmas can often heighten feelings of grief and Seasonal Affective Disorder, where the gloomy dark mornings and lack of vitamin D can lead to depression.

Don’t turn a blind eye to any of your employees who might be struggling at this time of year. Make sure they know where to go to seek support and always offer a listening ear. Encourage use of your Employee Assistance Programme if you have one in place. Most importantly, ensure that your lines of communication are open, and your employees feel supported and able to speak up if they are struggling.

The pandemic has been a difficult time for everyone, and, for many, this could be the first Christmas without a loved one. Be supportive, consider flexible working or other allowances that could be made to help them through this time.

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