How to avoid HR landmines during the Christmas celebrations

Wild office parties, risqué Secret Santa gifts and hazardous decorations can all spell trouble.

By Melanie Crowley Partner, Mason Hayes & Curran

PREPARATIONS ARE WELL and truly in full swing for the festive season.

That means there are some common workplace issues that employers need to watch out for.

To help you prepare, here are some practical tips for dealing with them successfully:

1. Christmas party and liability for employees

As Christmas approaches, there is an influx of stories concerning inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and sexual harassment claims.

These serve as an important reminder of the significance of respecting dignity at work and of having appropriate bullying and harassment policies in place.

Tip: Employers should ensure that employees understand that just because they are attending the Christmas party, it does not mean that normal rules around appropriate workplace behaviour do not apply for the night.

Ideally, employees should be regularly trained, or at the very least, reminded that they are expected to observe any dignity at work, bullying and harassment policies at work-related events.

Employers should introduce these policies where they currently are not in place. The policies should ideally include references to work-related social events.

2. You’ve been tagged

It might be said that there is no such thing as bad publicity. However, the last thing an employer needs is for images or footage from its Christmas party going viral on social media sites for all the wrong reasons.

Tip: Employees should not place material on social media sites which would adversely affect the reputation of the employer.

Employers should ensure that employees are aware of this, either through the company social media policy or through specific guidelines circulated before the Christmas party.

Staff should also be made aware that this conduct may result in them being disciplined.

3. The morning after the night before

Employers are obliged under the 2005 Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Acts to provide a safe place of work.

They should be mindful of these obligations to employees who are required to work the day after the Christmas party. This applies particularly to employees who drive or operate machinery.

Tip: Employers should inform all employees of their expectations that, should they report for work the day after the Christmas party, they must not be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

If an employer suspects that an employee may be under the influence, then it may be possible to start an investigation in accordance with the company’s disciplinary policy.

4. ‘Secret Santa’

While ‘Secret Santa’ in the office is often seen as a bit of fun, the anonymity involved can sometimes result in inappropriate, and even offensive, gifts being exchanged between colleagues.

Tip: Employers should ensure that employees are aware that ‘Secret Santa’ falls under the dignity at work and bullying and harassment policies. As a result, employees should be encouraged to consider in advance of selecting a gift whether their choice might cause offence or be construed as bullying or harassment.

5. Public holidays

Under the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 (1997 Act) there are three public holidays over the Christmas period: Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day and New Year’s Day.

Employees who qualify for public holiday benefit will be entitled to one of the following:

  • A paid day off on the public holiday
  • An additional day of annual leave
  • An additional day’s pay
  • A paid day off within a month of the public holiday

Most employees are entitled to the benefit of public holidays. One exception applies to part-time workers who have not worked for their employer for at least 40 hours in total in the five weeks before the public holiday.

Tip: Employers are advised to draw up rosters and confirm with employees the days they will be required to work over the holiday period in early December. This should be done to avoid any confusion or upset among staff and to ensure compliance with the 1997 Act.

6. Snow days

Where employees are not required to attend work due to adverse weather, for example, because the employer has closed for the day or the employer asks them not to come in or to leave early, then employees should be paid as normal.

Where the employer’s business remains open and employees are unable to attend due to safety concerns or because they need to take care of children who are off school, then, strictly speaking and subject to any custom and practice in operation within the employer, there is no obligation to pay employees during this time.

Tip: While the weather is still relatively mild, employers have an opportunity to put measures in place now to prepare for adverse weather in the coming months.

We recommend they:

  • Ensure they have up-to-date contact details for all employees so they can be contacted in advance if the business has to close
  • Ensure employee safety by keeping an eye on developments from Met Éireann and taking heed of any travel warnings which may come from the weather service, An Garda Síochána or the government
  • Review, and implement as appropriate, any relevant policies which may be in place relating to absences or closures due to unforeseen events

If there is no policy is in place, consider and communicate to employees, if appropriate, how time off during this time will be treated. For example, the employer may:

  • Continue to pay employees as normal
  • Require the employee to work from home
  • Allow employees to take the missed time from their paid annual leave entitlement
  • Agree that employees can make up the missed time at a later date

7. Deck the halls

Under health and safety legislation, employers are obliged to provide and maintain a safe place of work for employees. While employers’ health and safety obligations should not be used as an excuse to dampen the festive spirit in the workplace, employers should take common sense precautions when it comes to decorating the office for Christmas.

Tip: Employers should take precautions such as making sure that Christmas trees are not blocking fire escape routes or exits and checking any novelty lighting for defects.

The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.

Melanie Crowley is a partner and head of the employment law and benefits team at Mason Hayes & Curran.

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