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09th December 2011

Christmas checklist

By this time you will have made your staffing and supplies arrangements for the Christmas and New Year period. Duties over the holiday period will have been organised according to the policies which all employees were made aware of when they were engaged, and which therefore form part of their contract of employment. The rotas will have been checked to make sure that they are in accordance with the holiday rota policy, and that no intended or unintended discrimination or unfairness has crept in to store up trouble for the future. Usage levels of all purchased materials will have been analysed, supplier shutdowns researched, and orders placed at levels and timing to keep the organisation in good order. It is however good practice to check your arrangements in order to avoid unnecessary risk to the business, your clients, your staff, and others.

Employment practice

  • While an employer cannot control in any way what an employee does while not in work, the employer is entitled to insist that an employee attends work in a fit state.  Therefore an employee who arrives at work still suffering from alcohol or recreational drug impairment is not fit for work.  An employee who is too tired to work at reasonable capacity after partying is not fit for work.  An employee who had arrived straight from a party without the proper uniform is not fully fit for work.

While no employer wants to take such a firm stance too far, this is after all the season of goodwill, employees have to understand that their responsibilities to the clients in particular should not be materially affected by their carers’ activities outside of work.  At the margin, no service user wants to have possibly close physical contact with a carer who is reeking of stale alcohol, who is complaining of headaches or upset stomach, or even recounting tales of party antics in their presence.  The kindest treatment of a member of staff in this state is to sit them down (briefly) with a cup of strong coffee, a strong mint, and a reminder of professional behaviour standards.  Employees who are incapable of quickly sobering up and reasonably discharging their duties should be suspended without pay until fit.

To reduce the chance of these extreme inconveniences and unpleasantness happening, meet your staff and remind them, face to face, of the standards of behaviour expected over the festive period.  Remind employees of your alcohol and substance misuse policy, as well as the attendance and performance policies.  Make it clear where the line is, and that stepping over it is not a kill-joy attitude, but a responsible expression of the responsibilities.

  • For home care providers, it is important to remind employees of the extended periods that alcohol can stay in the system, impair driving ability, and keep them above the drink-drive limit.  While it is the responsibility of the employee to ensure that they do not contravene the law, a responsible employer will remind them of their obligation to themselves and others before the period and during it.  The employer also does not want their service disrupted by the arrest of their workers, with possible later disqualification from driving.
  • Inappropriate behaviour outside of work, even that which does not directly affect the business, can be a problem and subject to censure as long as the QCS HR policies have been properly applied.  A staff party booked in the organisation’s name, which turns into a drunken incident witnessed by third parties can seriously undermine the organisation’s hard work to build a reputation in the community for competence.
  • Christmas and New Year is a stressful time for many people, with a combination of additional work, money worries, family conflicts and work/family conflicts.  Be prepared to apply the rules so that a small number of thoughtless employees do not add to the stress of others by absenteeism and bad behaviour, but also be prepared to show seasonal goodwill by being as flexible as fairness and the demands of the service allow.  Be very careful to consider issues of fairness and discrimination.  Make sure that you have applied your rules fairly and evenly amongst your employees, with no intentional or hidden bias which can be challenged in the future.  Remember that simply asking an employee to assent to a request, even in writing, is no defence against a successful future challenge.  Many Employment Tribunal claims have been based on the accusation that the employee felt coerced to assent, even though they did not want to, because of the fear or reprisals or less favourable treatment at some time in the future if they did not.
  • If a “close down” of certain departments such as administration or accounting, is mandatory and deducted from the annual holiday entitlement, check that you have previously included the mandatory nature of the arrangements in your employee contract.
  • Watch out for the problems which can arise from parties and similar occasions. While the urban legends which abound in this area are probably more applicable to experience in the litigation culture of the USA and legal challenge is less likely in the UK, there are still many instances when avoidable employee conflicts can occur.

For example: A drunken employee wraps their arms around another employee and gives an unwanted kiss.  Sexual harassment is the number one key risk that employers need to be aware of. No business owner wants a sexual harassment claim and no employee wants to be in a situation where they have reason to launch one. Staff party plus alcohol equals potential lawsuit. Therefore remind all employees of the Harassment policy. Provide training to staff and managers alike on this issue.

Another example: An employee drinks heavily, gets into their car and crashes on the drive home.  Employers have in law a duty of care to protect health, safety and welfare of all employees including company work functions. Employees could in some circumstances lodge compensation claim if they are injured travelling to and from work. This risk goes up with the likelihood of a high consumption of alcohol. A claim can put your insurance premiums up and involve more money that the budget for the party. Paying for the taxi home for staff is likely to be cheaper than a compensation claim on a failure to provide a duty of care. Address the safety of your employees travelling home – taxi charge, chartered bus or paying for taxi receipts submitted after the event are examples.

A further example: A frustrated employee, fuelled by alcohol, decides to get even with another employee and a fight erupts.  Employee relations are a sensitive area and staff parties can sometimes bring out the worst in employee relationships. The potential for long term conflicts from party dust-ups to undermine the culture of the business are quite real, and damaging. If there has been any friction during the year between staff, a party has the potential to be a minefield.  Make sure employees fully understand the standard of expected behaviour.

A final example: An employee with a mobile phone camera takes inappropriate pictures and posts them on Facebook along with comments.  The advent of social networking sites has added more risks and headaches to business. Employers can face claims of harassment and discrimination from employee’s activities on such networking sites. The reputation of your employer brand can go downwards very quickly if employees use social media sites with a free rein to say and do what they want regarding fellow workers and their employer.  Make sure all employees are aware of the consequences of discussing fellow employees or posting inappropriate pictures online, and remind them of the organisations policy.

Health and safety matters

  • Ensure that Christmas decorations such as traditional paper chains should be kept well away from any source of heat.
  • Ensure that decorations are securely fastened — security systems that use motion sensors have been known to be triggered by falling decorations.
  • Check that all items of electrical equipment are suitable for use in the workplace, even temporary decorations such as fairy lights. Equipment should carry an appropriate CE mark, and also have a current PAT test status.
  • Try to avoid the use of extension leads with trailing cables wherever possible because of the additional tripping and damage hazards that could arise. Do not allow electrical leads to be ‘daisy chained’.
  • Inclement weather.  With the chance of snow and ice quite high, remind employees of the inclement weather policy.
  • Ensure that you have an appropriate stock of snow and ice removal tools, including rock salt for your premises, and safety aids for staff to and from work and between clients.
  • Allow those employees who can work from home do so during inclement weather, to reduce the risk of injury and also to reduce stress.

Enjoy the festivities, but stay safe and stay legal!

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