What employers need to consider in the run-up to Christmas

With the festive party season fast approaching, there will be employees who may feel nervous about in-person social situations, says Jessica English

For the past 20 months, the country has been told to lock down, work from home where possible and avoid close contact with others. With the successful roll-out of the vaccination programme and the opening up of the UK once again, many people are keen to get out and about and start adjusting to the ‘new normal’.  

Indeed, several employers will be keen to encourage socialisation within their workforce to boost morale after such a tough period for everyone. However, with the run-up to a much-anticipated Christmas party season approaching, what should employers bear in mind when arranging such social gatherings? 

One of the many things the pandemic has taught everyone is that human interaction is essential to many people – and so the prospect of colleagues meeting, socialising, and celebrating face-to-face will be met with great excitement and anticipation.  

However, there are others who will be nervous of these social situations – whether it is because they have medical concerns or they are simply not acclimatised to such occasions after such a long period without.  

Workplace parties and social gatherings are generally outside of an employee’s contracted hours and duties and, as a result, should not require compulsory attendance. Therefore, if an individual does not feel comfortable socialising or being in close physical proximity with colleagues, they could simply choose not to attend. 

However, as an employer, it is natural to want to foster a workforce that is engaged and involved. To accommodate for a range of preferences, it’s worth thinking about more inclusive ways to celebrate. For example, instead of holding one big Christmas party for the whole team, could smaller gatherings be held over a longer period? Or instead of a party, could a series of hybrid events accommodate both in-person and remote attendance?

After such a long period without the enjoyment of in-person social gatherings, it could be easy to forget the importance of personal conduct – both in and out of the workplace.   

If an employer is arranging a post-pandemic company get-together, it is important to remember that such events can be considered “in the course of employment” and as such, an employee’s standard of behaviour is expected to continue as it would when undertaking their day-to-day duties in the workplace. Indeed, the responsibility of an employer to look after the safety and wellbeing of staff also remains. 

To help ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff at team events and celebrations, employers could consider the following practical steps:

  1. Look at the Covid safety measures the chosen venue has in place
    Does this align with the company’s approach, and will employees feel safe in following the required guidelines? This is perhaps less a legal consideration and more a practical issue to ensure the comfort and enjoyment of attendees.

  2. Think about revisiting and reviewing codes of conduct around behaviour and discrimination policies 
    For example, do these guidelines take into account the fact that some social events now take place online? After all, people do not have to be in the physical presence of someone to witness or experience inappropriate behaviour or discrimination.

  3. Consider sending a memo to staff reminding them of the expectations around their conduct
    This note should inform employees of appropriate standards of behaviour at such occasions and reinforce that actions considered to be outside of acceptable standards may result in disciplinary proceedings, for example the use of illegal drugs, discrimination in any form or assault.

Social activities outside the course of employment 

Just as employers will be busy making arrangements for employees to meet socially again, team members will also be keen to arrange their own gatherings. This brings about some interesting points for employers to consider.

If a social event is not arranged by or funded by the company, but is organised entirely by staff themselves, it is less likely to amount to an event that takes place in the course of employment. However, employee conduct in such situations can still impact significantly on the day-to-day working life of colleagues and this potential impact should not be overlooked.  

Inappropriate conduct outside of work, at a non-work-related event, can still find its way into the workplace and have a significant effect on an employee’s ability to perform their duties, as well as on working relationships between staff. This, in turn, can impact on the performance and efficiency. 

As everyone adapts to the ‘new normal’, and with social gatherings becoming more frequent, now is the time for businesses to take the opportunity to review their HR and employee relations policies – such as disciplinary, grievance, and those relating to alcohol and drugs – to ensure there are clear guidelines for dealing with such issues, should they arise.

Maintaining open communication with employees and/or employee representatives will help companies to gauge and manage any personnel issues which come about at this unprecedented time. From an employee relations perspective, it is important to understand the workforce’s feelings and consider how these issues are dealt with effectively. 

Jessica English is a senior solicitor at esphr