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Season Of Goodwill Or Employment Mayhem?

Christmas employment problems


Coloured lights adorn our town centres, shops house seasonal displays of potential presents and bars are filled with the sound of Christmas tunes. It's probably therefore a good time to consider the issues facing employers at this festive time of the year.

Extra hours to beat the Christmas rush

Christmas poses a number of potential pitfalls for employers operating in a seasonal market but with careful management these can be reduced considerably. For instance, at such a busy time of year many companies will need a little extra effort to prepare but it is essential that Working Time Regulations are still observed.

However, for those whose employees have signed an opt-out making them exempt from such regulations, they are not constrained by the maximum 48 hour working week. But, unless the contracts of employment contain a compulsory overtime clause, employers are reliant on the goodwill of workers to put in the time.

Workers are still entitled to take their daily and weekly rest breaks even if they do overtime. Should employers be considering cheaper, young workers as an option they need to remember that the opt-out policy is not available for 16-18 year olds. They are restricted to a maximum of 40 hours a week and entitled to 48 hours continuous weekly rest, i.e. two consecutive days off. Under-sixteen's are even more tightly controlled.

In addition, employers specifically looking to recruit younger workers need to make sure they don't fall foul of anti-ageism legislation, in terms of the wording of recruitment adverts, the interview process etc.

The Christmas shut down

In some industries the workplace shuts down for the entire Christmas break but employers need to address the requirement for staff to take part of their annual leave during this period.

If there is nothing in the contract of employment to the contrary employers are able to require workers to take holidays as part of the shut down. This is on the condition that the notice period is twice the length of the period to be taken. In practice, employers should inform personnel at the start of the holiday year to avoid the problem of workers not having enough annual leave left.

In situations such as this employers also need to be aware of the various religious beliefs of their employees. Although the shut down is not in itself discriminatory against non Christians, as it is considered no different from a summer shut down, if employees were prohibited from taking holiday during their religious festivals it could amount to discrimination depending on the circumstances and the requirements of the business.

The Christmas Party

Careful planning is called for when it comes to organising Christmas parties. The first thing to remember is that the party is an extension of the workplace, even if held away from the company premises. Employers must therefore ensure that the venue is safe and accessible to any disabled workers or guests.

If providing free alcoholic dinks, limit the number. One unfortunate company found itself liable for a drunken employee who crashed his car after a "free bar". It is worth asking managers to look out for staff who have had a little too much and instructing the bar staff not to serve them any more alcoholic drinks.

Take care not to offend particular groups by, for example, the provision of inappropriate food, a sexist comedian or strip tease artist. Any organised games must be accessible to all including disabled staff or guests.

It may be the season of goodwill but should bosses be lenient in relation to employees' activities which would normally result in disciplinary action? It probably depends on the seriousness of the situation.

Employers need to make it clear to staff in advance of the event that drunken, violent, abusive, harassing or discriminatory behaviour will not be tolerated and perpetrators will be subject to disciplinary proceedings.

It is important for employers to remember that they have responsibilities to their staff and the business. Should someone present a risk to health & safety, employers may be justified in sending them home and considering disciplinary action.

Christmas flexibility

Similarly, what is the right course of action concerning staff that extend the lunch break to engage in Christmas shopping or spend time on the internet sourcing Christmas gifts? Some companies provide a day for Christmas shopping and then police the normal rules on timekeeping and internet access strictly. Some just enforce it strictly.

Looking at it from a legal standpoint, this period is no different from any other time of the year. All the usual rules apply. Enjoy the festive season, but remember that if an employer decides that the season of goodwill justifies a little bending of those rules there should be no flexibility in relation to harassment and discrimination and employers' liability as failure to ensure this may lead the employer concerned to wish that the 'humbug' approach had been applied.