The season to be sorry? The 12 HR pitfalls of the festive season

Yuletide may come with plenty of fun but, as Jim Moore warns, it also brings potential problems for people professionals

Christmas is a time for teams to relax and bond after a difficult year, but the celebrations can bring challenges to the workplace. Office parties can be the catalyst for inappropriate behaviour, and the winter perils of snow and seasonal lurgies (among others) cause havoc.

Here’s a guide to the 12 HR pitfalls of Christmas…

12 drinks too many

Many office parties are steering away from the traditional alcohol-focused event. Boozy bashes have caused problems for organisations and the prospect of inappropriate behaviour at workplace events can bring HR managers out in a cold sweat. Companies risk being held vicariously liable for employees’ bad behaviour if it happens at a work celebration and proper precautions are not taken.

11 staff a-sneezing

Immune systems take a battering in the winter months and workplaces face a carousel of colds, Covid, flu and sniffles. Isolating because of Covid may be a thing of the past, but asking sick staff to stay away from the workplace means fewer bugs can spread. The ability to work from home means some unwell employees may feel obliged to log on to show willing, but encouraging staff to take time off means they will be back to 100 per cent more quickly.

10 hols unwanted

Some companies shut down for the week between Christmas and New Year but this can leave some staff members resentful at the lack of choice. Consider letting employees work from home during this period if they wish to, allowing them to bank the holiday for when it’s wanted. Clearly and publicly notify all staff of this option and you should keep people happy.

Nine cars a-weaving

Businesses that require staff to drive for work purposes should avoid alcohol-fuelled parties the night before a work day. Many police forces are increasingly targeting motorists over the limit from the night before. If an employee is caught drink driving in a company vehicle, any policies around vehicle use and alcohol will come under scrutiny. It can be wise to remind employees of the rules ahead of the festive season. 

Eight days snowed in

Colder weather brings the risk of disruption from snow and ice. The advent of working from home makes this less of a problem for many companies, but some businesses can’t operate remotely. Even if it's possible for employees to get into the workplace, closed schools can create problems for parents. Parents may take unpaid leave in such a situation, but this is statistically more likely to impact the women in your workforce.

Seven days a-dragging

As festive events proliferate, work can start to feel like an afterthought, especially as the clock ticks down to the big day. Motivation may slump, sending productivity through the floor and managers need to make a call on how to react. Keep company Christmas events separate from work time and avoid having social activities in the workplace. By demarcating the line between fun and work, it will be easy to keep employees working when they should be.

Six leave days clashing

If your company’s holiday year ends on 31 December, there can be bedlam as employees rush to use up their leave. Regular reminders throughout the year can help mitigate this issue. But if you face a holiday logjam, make sure you have a fair system for reviewing and allocating days off. Allowing employees to carry days forward into the next calendar year should be used sparingly, for fear of creating a similar problem the following December.

Five secret Santas

The Christmas tradition of giving anonymous gifts to workmates has the potential for serious consequences. In 2008 a police officer gave a Muslim colleague a secret Santa gift of bacon and wine, which ultimately resulted in the officer having to resign. Any tribunal will consider the reaction of the receiver, not the intentions of the giver. A gentle reminder in advance can see off potential trouble without the need to become a Christmas killjoy.

Four heads a-hurting

Social events in and out of work can pile up in December, creating a potential problem with hungover staff. Managers should use discretion, but what do you do when performance or attendance levels drop? A quiet word works best early on and can stop a potential problem from escalating. If sick days are becoming suspiciously common and work isn’t getting done, a more formal warning may be required.

Three hols a-moving 

Employees who don’t celebrate the traditional festive days may resent having to take off Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Day as bank holidays. Flexible bank holidays allow staff to work these days and use this time off when they want it, which may be for a religious holiday or other event.

Two staff a-kissing

The appearance of mistletoe at a Christmas party may feel like an invitation to some people to try to kiss a colleague, but work and romance are rarely a good mix. When combined with alcohol, the issue of consent can get forgotten, especially when the person soliciting a kiss is in a position of power.

And a part myth in a fair plea

Every year you hear some distant connection on Facebook lamenting that ‘you can’t wish people Happy Christmas anymore’. Of course you can – just as you can wish people a Happy Hanukkah or a Happy Bodhi Day. Companies shouldn’t shy away from celebrating Christmas, but they should remember to mark other festivals too, especially in workplaces with a diverse range of religions.

Jim Moore is managing partner of Hamilton Nash