Navigating the Minefield: HR Issues at Christmas-time (Guest Blog)
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From the organisation of Christmas parties to problems with holiday requests, issues around different religions and the difficult Christmas bonuses, companies will need to make sure they are up to date with their knowledge of current employment law to tackle the festive period.

This post, from Gordon Dean solicitors in Norwich, covers the employment law essentials needed in preparation for the holidays. Let’s start with Christmas parties.

The vast majority of companies have some kind of Christmas party for their employees and they have the same legal responsibility for their staff members as they do during the normal working day. There are two main issues surrounding the office Christmas party:

1. Health and Safety
2. Discrimination

Health and safety is a topic often feared by organisations, but it is put in place to simply assess and reduce the risks to any member of staff or the public in attendance. A risk assessment of the event will need to be carried out and it is recommended that at least one of the managers takes responsibility of the event – i.e. they drink no alcohol and are on hand if any issues arise. Another step some companies take is to limit the amount of alcohol available and ensure that employees can get home safely.

Discrimination is another major issue which could arise during the organisation of a Christmas Party. The Equality Act of 2010 legally protects employees from discrimination in the workplace, a comprehensive list of what is involved in discrimination rights can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/discrimination-your-rights. When planning the Christmas party, you need to make sure that you’re considering everybody in attendance – whether this is the needs of a disabled employee or if someone has a particular dietary requirement due to a religious belief.

The second point I’d like to comment on is holidays. Sometimes even when the best plans are laid out a manager has the difficult decision of choosing who is allowed their leave at what point over the holidays. Firstly you need to remember that no one has the right to paid holiday without your agreement and your staff members cannot dictate which days they should be able to take off work. However, to ensure you comply with employment law you must make sure you make the decision free of discrimination.

Finally I’d like to touch upon Christmas bonuses, and with the economy still a little delicate, it is no surprise that some businesses are looking to do away with their bonuses in 2012. This must be done cautiously, however, to ensure that you’re not hit by a costly tribunal claim from any employee.

If an employee has a contractual right to be paid a Christmas bonus you must comply with the contract, otherwise you will be in breach of this contract and could be vulnerable to a tribunal claim. An employee’s contract really is the first point of call when it comes to Christmas bonuses as it may give a defined amount or the fact that it is discretion. If a contractual bonus is not given an employee has the option to resign and claim constructive dismissal for breach of contract. This risk however, is reasonably low unless the bonus is particularly large.

Another key factor is to ensure that you are open about bonuses – explain why they will not be made to ensure that no discrimination claims can be sought. There is, however, a slight anomaly in this area as if you have regularly given Christmas bonuses it may be considered to be a custom practice and therefore there may be an expectation on the behalf of employees.

Hopefully these tips will be helpful to those looking to navigate the HR minefield this Christmas time. Don’t be afraid to call an employment law specialist if you are in need of any expertise.

This blog post was written by Rebecca Field on behalf of Gordon Dean Solicitors in Great Yarmouth, specialising in employment law.