How to survive Christmas without ending up in court

As the party season kicks off, read People Management’s definitive guide to avoiding Secret Santa lawsuits and other festive pickles

Christmas can be a stressful time of year. And for HR departments, the potential for things to go wrong is so great that 5 per cent have now initiated an official policy around workplace Secret Santa, where colleagues anonymously buy each other gifts. 

Tasked with being both the facilitators and arbiters of festivities, it is often down to HR professionals to take care of the necessary logistics and ensure employee safety and wellbeing.

But while it may be daunting to know every piece of internal communications throughout the year has led to these final few weeks, People Management has you covered. As the party season gets into full swing, we present a rundown of where to be wary so you can make the most of this year’s celebrations. 

Secret Santa

Nothing ruins Christmas like an employment tribunal that arises out of an inappropriate Secret Santa gift. And so often has this apparently innocent game gone wrong that many businesses are now planning ahead.

A survey of 650 firms by HR and employment law specialists Citation found 5 per cent now had a policy in place to guide employees in their festive gift-giving. But more worryingly, 71 per cent weren’t aware that as an employer they could be held liable if an employee received an offensive gift.

Among the inappropriate presents cited were toothbrushes, underwear, products of a sexual nature, deodorant, phallic-themed chocolate and female sanitary products.

Gillian McAteer, head of employment law at Citation, said: “Businesses are leaving themselves extremely vulnerable to HR issues, even tribunal proceedings, if just one employee gifts another with an inappropriate gift – not to mention the damage it can do to employee relations and the animosity it could cause among colleagues.”

The office party 

Christmas parties are the highlight of any office calendar, and offer the chance to unwind with colleagues over a couple of drinks and some light conga dancing.

But research has found the traditional boozy evening is not always what employees want. 

Mental health charity Mind says one in three employees would rather take part in a non-alcoholic Christmas activity than head to the pub. More than a quarter (28 per cent) said they would like to spend time with colleagues but wish it didn’t revolve around drinking.

HR should also consider the cost of the party itself, both to the business and to employees. Recently published figures suggest almost half (45 per cent) of employers worry that approaching employees about their financial wellbeing would be an intrusion, but it is especially prudent to be aware of these issues at this time of year. 

Similarly, a separate study by Close Brothers Invoice Finance found the majority of SMEs in the private sector asked staff to contribute financially towards their own Christmas party, despite senior managers believing it was important for staff morale.

When it comes to the cost to the business, a survey of more than 300 UK workers by Shine Workplace Wellbeing found almost three quarters (74 per cent) would rather £100 be allocated to longer-term health and wellbeing commitments than a Christmas bash. 

Shine founder Matthew Carlton said: “Rather than relying on one major annual event to boost employee morale, businesses should think about how they could invest in ongoing initiatives that make employees feel appreciated and supported for a prolonged period.”

Managing the morning after

In the unlikely event festivities do get out of hand, HR needs to safeguard against the business consequences of excessive partying.

According to research by Willis Towers Watson, almost a quarter (24 per cent) of 18 to 34-year-olds say they have gone into work still feeling drunk after boozy nights out over the past 12 months. This figure falls to 12 per cent among the over-35s.

Businesses need to decide beforehand whether they will allow employees to come in late the day after the office party, said Donna Bonfield of Reality HR Consultant. “But be sure to make it clear where you stand on lateness and absenteeism. It is, after all, like any other day and should be treated this way.” 

She added that sharing snaps on social media could be a great way to demonstrate company culture, but advised drafting a social media policy to ensure nothing inappropriate was shared. 

But Bonfield’s key takeaway was to embrace the festivity and “don’t kill the fun!”

“Remind employees it’s a celebration and employees who do not adhere to the policy spoil the party for everyone.”