Christmas Issues in the workplace

Besides knowing how to behave appropriately at the works Christmas party, there are some workplace issues relating to Christmas that are sometimes overlooked.

By Metis HR.

Christmas hampers or other regular gifts to employees

If employees have regularly been provided with a hamper or a specific gift for several years, they could argue that provision of the hamper has become a contractual right as a result of custom and practice. This could be the case if employees have come to expect to receive a hamper, and no previous indication has been given by their employer that its continued provision is not guaranteed. Before deciding not to provide hampers, you should explain to your staff why you feel you are unable to do so. Alternatively, you may consider providing a smaller, less expensive gift and explain to the staff why you have made cutbacks.

Dress code and Christmas jumpers

Lots of organisations choose to relax their dress policy at this time of year. Inviting casual dress and Christmas jumpers can help bring some fun into the workplace. Be careful about the wording you use when notifying staff and make it clear that casual and Christmas dress is optional. Be sensitive to employees who do not celebrate Christmas. If casual dress worn by staff on the days between Christmas and New Year has become a problem, make sure you flag up what dress code is required ahead of time so that staff know what you are expecting.

Can you withhold a Christmas bonus?

There are two types of bonus scheme, discretionary and contractual. Provided that the terms of a discretionary scheme are clearly set out, you will be entitled to exercise discretion to withhold payment of a bonus as long as it is not acting irrationally. If a bonus agreed under a contractual basis is not paid and the criteria for payment has been met, an employee can apply to an employment tribunal for unlawful deductions of wages. The criteria applied to either sort of bonus scheme should not be discriminatory.

Christmas gifts from clients and suppliers

Christmas is a time when many organisations receive gifts from grateful suppliers and customers. Whilst we all enjoy the odd box of chocolates, it’s worth reminding staff of what is an acceptable gift.

Be clear that they are welcome to keep or share any gifts of minor value that they receive, but that they will need to inform a manager about any larger gifts, or gifts where the intention of the gift is questionable (e.g. to encourage you to agree a proposal/sale). Check your own policy on what is an acceptable value and inform staff accordingly.

If you don’t have a Bribery Policy or Guidelines around receiving gifts, this could be a good time to implement some.

Don’t get irritated with staff who don’t share gifts with colleagues, or let you know what they have received if you have never published a policy that clearly sets out what is required and acceptable.

Other religions

Another big Christmas issue in the workplace is as Christmas is a Christian festival, can an employer still hold a Christmas party if some of its employees belong to other religions?

Christmas parties generally are not really about celebrating religion. They are more about improving staff morale, loyalty and thanking employees for all their hard work and efforts over the previous year.

It is unlikely that an employment tribunal would be willing to decide that the holding of a Christmas party constitutes religious discrimination against any non-Christians contrary to the Equality Act 2010.

However, there is currently no case law on this point and it is possible that a non-Christian employee may argue that the office Christmas party discriminates against him or her because the employee's own religious festival is not also celebrated by the employer.

You must be careful to take the various religions into account when planning the date, location, theme and catering for the Christmas party.

For example, an alcohol-fuelled party in a local pub could well deter Muslim employees whose religion forbids association with alcohol. Friday nights cause problems for Orthodox Jewish employees, because they have to be home an hour before dusk for the start of their Sabbath.

You may wish to review the arrangements and identify areas where staff from different religions might be disadvantaged. Consider how those arrangements could be changed to overcome those disadvantages. Issues to consider include: whether or not the venue is suitable and the date acceptable; whether or not any theme is likely to cause offence to anyone; whether or not a choice of non-alcoholic drinks will be provided; whether or not the menu gives sufficient choice, including vegetarian options; and whether or not other dietary requirements can be accommodated.