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How to navigate festive workplace issues - a HR guide

With winter getting into full swing and Christmas fast approaching there are a number of issues set to arise over the next couple of months: some new, some old and some specific to 2019. 

A German court recently, and controversially, classed a hangover as an ‘illness’, grabbing plenty of attention in the British press. However, employers should not be overly concerned as the case itself related to advertising regulations in food supplements as opposed to employment law. It did however raise the question of how employers in the UK should deal with staff who attend work suffering the after effects of a few too many mulled wines at the work party the night before, and whether such behaviour would amount to misconduct under a typical employment policy. While the current legal position in the UK doesn’t classify a hangover as an illness, this case should serve as a reminder to employers to check and renew contracts and policies relating to alcohol at work and to set clear expectations of behaviour, especially in party season. [Find out more about this case in our article 'Hangovers - an "illness" or misconduct?'].

Employers may wish to take steps to ensure that the work Christmas party doesn’t end up producing more than just a sore head the next morning. The recent case of Shelbourne v Cancer Research UK Limited provided some reassurance for employers about their liability for accidents at work social events, however this case demonstrated the potential for serious consequences when a company-run party gets out of hand. Here the court did not extend employer liability to cover the actions of a drunk attendee at a work Christmas party which caused an injury, however it would be prudent for employers to ensure they have completed an appropriate risk assessment before a party, and perhaps consider the wisdom of providing free flowing alcohol. 

In a post-GDPR world, employers can be fearful about collecting and processing personal data that isn’t strictly necessary for the employment relationship, which can lead to an abundance of caution around allowing photos to be taken at Christmas events and parties. There is often a perception that the GDPR requires written consent to be obtained from employees before photos of them can be taken. However there isn’t too much cause for concern. While employees may not always want their Christmas party antics permanently recorded and made available for all to see, as a general rule you do not need approach every attendee to obtain a written consent to take photographs of them before the event. If required, a simple process can be implemented allowing employees to ask photographers directly not to take their photo, and it might be wise to revisit and recirculate social media and device usage policies to all employees.

Commonplace issues such as conflicting holiday requests can often be a source of office tensions, but it comes as a surprise to many that if this is handled incorrectly, employers could potentially leave themselves open to discrimination accusations. When faced with conflicting holiday requests, transparency is key, and clear justification for any refusal should be provided. Employers should always be mindful of possible direct or indirect discrimination which could arise as a result of preferring one employee’s request over another. Throwing a winter election into the mix, employers should be mindful of how any request by trade union representatives may conflict with other holiday requests. It is important to note that trade union representatives cannot be unreasonably refused leave in election periods, but worth remembering that you have no legal obligation to give employees time off to vote.

Having the right policies in place, and clearly communicating those policies to employees, will likely allow for a worry-free festive season for all. 

This article was first published by People Management

This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at November 2019. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms and conditions


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