Employer considerations in the run up to Christmas as we adjust to the “new normal”

19 Oct 21 by Jessica English
Christmas party

For the best part of 18 months, the country has been told to lockdown – work from home where you can and avoid close contact with others. With the successful roll out of the vaccination scheme and the opening up of the country again, many are keen to get out and about and start adjusting to the ‘new normal’.

Indeed, many 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 for their employees?

What is an exciting time for some, will be a nervous time for others

One of the many things the pandemic has taught us, 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, it is important to bear in mind that there are others within our workforces who will be nervous of these social situations – whether this is because they have medical concerns, or because they are simply not acclimatised to such situations 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, involved and inclusive. In order to accommodate for a range of preferences as we start to move out of our locked down world, it may be worth thinking about more inclusive and varied ways to celebrate. For example, instead of holding one big Christmas party for the whole workforce, could you accommodate smaller gatherings over a longer period? Or instead of a party, could you offer a series of hybrid events that accommodate both in person and remote attendance?

Conduct of employees at work related social gatherings can be considered as “in the course of employment”

After such a long period without the benefit of in person social gatherings, in the excitement, it could be easy to forget the importance of setting expectations when it comes to the conduct of staff–both in and out of the workplace at workplace gatherings.  

If you are 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 when organising Company related events.

In order that a company can help ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff at company events and celebrations, it is worth considering the following practical steps to ensure not only the safety of colleagues but also the general enjoyment of those in attendance:

  1. Look at the Covid safety measures that your chosen venue has in place. Does this align with your own company approach and will your staff feel safe in following the required guidelines? This is perhaps less a legal consideration and more a practical consideration to ensure the comfort and enjoyment of attendees.
  2. Think about revisiting and reviewing your codes of conduct around behaviour – as well as any discrimination policies – to ensure that they are reflective of the ‘new normal’. For example, do these guidelines take into account the fact that some social events now take place online? After all, you don’t have to be in the physical presence of someone to witness or experience inappropriate behaviour or discrimination. 
  3. Consider sending a memo to staff in anticipation of more social events being arranged, reminding them of the expectations around their conduct when attending company organised events, whether in person or virtually. This note should inform employees of appropriate standards of behaviour at such occasions and reinforce that behaviour or conduct considered to be outside of acceptable standards may result in disciplinary action e.g. use of illegal drugs, discrimination in any form, assault.

Social activities outside the course of employment

Just as employers will be busy making arrangements for staff to meet socially again, team members themselves 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 performance and efficiency of the workforce.

As we emerge into the new normal, and with social gatherings becoming more frequent, perhaps now is the time for businesses to take the opportunity to review their HR and ER policies – such as disciplinary, grievance, and those relating to alcohol and drugs – in order that there are clear guidelines in place 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 feelings of your workforce and to consider how you may wish to deal with these issues.

 


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Post by Jessica English

Senior solicitor, ESP Law Ltd

Jessica is a pragmatic employment solicitor and litigator with a range of experience in both private practice and in-house. Having qualified in 2008, she begun her career in a Trade Union firm and made the move to exclusively advising businesses over 10 years ago. Her breadth of experience includes advising clients in the retail, manufacturing and transport sectors and immediately prior to joining esphr, she worked as an in-house employment lawyer for a national care charity with over 5,000 staff.