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Avoiding litigation problems with the Christmas party.

Business Continuity Expo And Conference : 13 December, 2007  (Technical Article)
Business continuity experts take a look at the dangers of office parties and offer advice on how to avoid problems during festive celebrations.
The Christmas office party is a traditional element of many businesses but what potential risks do these annual events present and what guidelines should be in place to ensure that revelry doesn't turn into regret?

David Honour - a risk expert and editor of together with Business Continuity Expo 2008 have put together a useful risk assessment checklist for risk aware managers wanting to keep their jobs in 2008!

Strange as it may seem, the office Christmas party is probably one of the biggest avoidable risks that many companies take. Many of the most risk-aware and best protected companies in the world seem prepared to throw an office party without conducting the sort of risk assessment that they would for any other aspect of their business.

The office party risks include the following elements:.

* Litigation.

Even if an organised office party takes place outside of working hours and away from company premises, the normal laws that protect workers and their rights still apply. If an employee is injured or abused in any way during an office party the company may well be legally liable. High risk areas include injuries, abuse and even death, due to alcohol and substance abuse. Additionally, the risks associated with date rape drugs, where a victim's drinks are unknowingly spiked with tranquilising and memory impairing drugs such as Rohypnol, are an increasing concern.

There are various sensible mitigation measures that companies can take:..

- Ensure that the company human resource policies and handbooks address these areas. Documents should state when and under what circumstances staff remain under employment conditions when away from company premises and out of office hours. It may prove useful to develop a specific HR policy that relates to office parties. Policies need to spell out the disciplinary measures that will be taken against staff who abuse alcohol or drugs during the event and who carry out other activities deemed as unacceptable.

- Send a friendly memo around staff prior to the party reminding them of their responsibilities and of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

- Remind managers that they have responsibilities for implementing the company's alcohol and substance abuse policy and that they should be ready to have a friendly word with any person who is becoming intoxicated.

- Consider making arrangements to get employees home after the event. A taxi-fare is a much cheaper option than a law-suit alleging that your company failed in its duty-of-care because a drunken employee had an accident making his/her own way home.

- Companies should conduct a formal risk assessment of the office party and document the mitigation measures that have been taken. If the company should face litigation following a party-related incident this will offer evidence that the company has acted responsibly and taken all reasonable measures to prevent the incident occurring.

- Ensure that your company insurance policies cover your Christmas party activities, including the legal liability pitfalls.

* Premises damage.

Parties that are held on office premises are prone to office equipment damage. Simple accidents can be very costly. For example, a glass of wine dropped onto computer equipment could result in expensive damage to the equipment but could also result in lost data and significant downtime.

In general, it is to be recommended that parties are held off-site. This avoids any additional work place risks associated with the event and may result in reduced, or joint, liability should a premises-related accident occur. It also often results in a better atmosphere, enhancing the positive effects that the party aims to engender. However, parties held off-site also bring the risk of damage and subsequent compensation payments. The risk is highest where an overnight hotel stay is offered to staff who have travelled from further afield. Emptied mini-bars and trashed hotel rooms are an expensive luxury.

* Employee relations

This is perhaps the highest risk area and one of the most important for the smooth-running of the company. The better that employee-to-employee relationships and employer-to-employee relationships are, the stronger a company tends to be. Activities which damage these relationships need to be avoided and the office party is a minefield when it comes to this area. Potential long-term conflicts can arise from common office party behaviour such as one-night stands; sexual harassment; verbal abuse and staff fights.

Such issues are difficult to mitigate against, but again, a clear human resource policy outlining what is unacceptable behaviour and the sanctions that will be brought into force against offenders will help in some of these areas. Good human resource management after any incident will also help reduce the personal and corporate impact.

Issues can also arise if an office party is planned insensitively. For example, a party which follows a period of cost-cutting and redundancies may be seen by the remaining staff as in bad taste.

Religion can cause problems and sensitivity needs to be shown, especially when a party is linked to a religious event such as Christmas and Easter. It may be better to rename the Christmas Party as simply the 'Office Party' or the 'Holiday Party', and it is best to avoid any use of decorations with religious themes or messages. Making the party optional is a sensible policy, allowing staff who may feel uncomfortable celebrating a festival based-upon another religion to avoid the situation.

* Reputational damage.

This is another minefield, especially where clients and prospects are invited to office parties. Such guests will get to see the company's employees without their professional 'hats on' and the resultant informality, when mixed with the lack of inhibition that alcohol consumption brings, can result in insulted clients and lost contracts.

Once again a well-crafted human resource policy will help in this area and a reminder memo beforehand can help place staff on-guard. Better still, consider making the party staff-only, keeping customers well away from the 'danger zone'.

The most obvious, and bluntest form of risk reduction is simply not to have an office Christmas party, but despite the risks, there are also positive benefits to the festive event. It shows staff that they are important and that the company does not have a 'Scrooge' mentality. They can also be strong networking events. This coupled with the simple the fact that staff are enjoying themselves together and socialising outside their normal working environment can have positive benefits on morale and employee relations. The trick is to be able to manage the liabilities and the reputational risks without negating any positive morale benefits.

For more pearls of wisdom visit visit Business Continuity Expo and Conference held at EXCEL Docklands from 2- 3rd April 2008 - the UK's definitive event for managing risk, resilience and recovery. This event will explore the solutions and best practice to ensure operational continuity and protect a company's interests before during and after an incident.
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