'Tis the season to be wary

An employment lawyer outlines three HR risks that you might not have considered in the run up to Christmas.

'Tis the season to be wary
It happens every year: HR teams think they’ve covered every corner, only to return to work in January having to deal with an employee who misbehaved at the Christmas party.

HRM sat down with Liz Coats, senior associate at Bell Gully, to discuss what employers should be focusing on as the year draws to a close.

According to Coats, there is a range of different issues that employers should consider revisiting at this time of year.

“These range from more procedural and serious issues around safety and behaviour to more technical issues around public holidays, annual leave and seasonal contracts,” Coats told HRM.

Addressing employee behaviour

“Christmas time is a time for parties and functions, which can lead to issues around employee behaviour,” Coats said.

However, she reminded employers that obligations go both ways.

“From an employer’s perspective, the key thing to remember is that there are health and safety obligations that apply whether they are hosting events at own premises or elsewhere.

“If an employee misbehaves at a function, the employer is also obligated to follow a fair process before deciding whether or not to discipline the employee.”

Coats added that because it’s a busy time of year, employers can “slip up and try to rush things”.

“It’s important to remember that despite the time of year, the same procedural requirements apply,” she said.

Employees, meanwhile, must be aware that their behaviour – even outside of the workplace – can be relevant to the employment relationship.
“For example, if an employee is attending a party outside of the workplace, they could be engaging in misconduct or serious misconduct if they breach their employer’s standards,” Coats explained.

“It can be helpful to remind employees of this – it depends on the particular employer’s culture, practices and experience.

“While some employers have a zero-tolerance approach to alcohol at company arranged functions, others might have a more relaxed attitude but still want to have basic guidelines in place.”

Remember your obligations

Coats advised employers that they should “definitely familiarise themselves with their obligations under the Holidays Act”.

“It’s quite a complicated statute,” she told HRM.

“This time of year there tend to be a number of issues in terms of public holidays and annual leave.

“It’s worthwhile considering which areas of the Act are going to be relevant. While some bus will shut down – which makes calculating leave more straightforward – others stay open, so will have more issues to think about from a payroll perspective.”

Considering seasonal workers

The last thing Coats advised employers to think about as Christmas approaches were the types of contracts that they might be using at this time of year.

“We’re coming into summer, which can be the peak season for many businesses, so many employers pick up more staff,” she said.

“Think about your seasonal contracts – for example, are they going to be fixed-term or casual?”

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