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Christmas Party HR Hangovers: Advice for Employers

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Apparently a quarter of Brits will kiss at the Christmas party, with 55% of us cheeky HR professionals admitting to a festive clinch with a colleague!

These types of statistics don't surprise me. Many of our new business enquiries are from issues that arise following the annual corporate Christmas party. And unfortunately, love often isn't in the air as the Christmas party HR hangover takes effect.

No matter how much good planning you put into making the corporate Christmas party safe, enjoyable, and risqué-free for everyone involved, things can go wrong. In fact, they often do!

It's unsurprising, really. For a whole year, tensions can brew and people bite their tongue over colleague issues (or crushes!). At the Christmas party, often after a good dose of alcohol, many of the usual reservations are cast aside as colleagues who never normally socialise together are let loose in a relaxed environment.

FT columnist, Lucy Kellaway, describes the "intimate yet constrained platonic relationship" of the "office spouse." This struck a chord with me. We generally spend more time with our work colleagues than we do with family and friends, so there is little wonder that these relationships become strained, or over-familiar. Our professional and social lives combine at the Christmas party, and in letting our hair down, the temptation to let other inhibitions go can bring some very surprising results!

But should employers intervene in employees' social lives?

The short answer is, yes, where that employee's conduct can have implications for the company. There have been a number of high profile cases this year where the conduct of an employee outside of the office has been called into question, leading to both a HR and a PR disaster. #Shicklegate (great summary here) and #Plebgate to name just two.

I have discussed before the importance of clearly communicating your company culture and appropriate behaviours. Prevention is always better than cure. But if things go wrong and you find yourself with a grievance case on your hands after the works Christmas do, here is what you should do to minimise the risk of it spiralling out of control.

(1) Keep calm and stay impartial

Whatever you do, don't jump to any conclusions about what has happened. It is important to remain impartial and set aside any preconceptions about what is likely to have happened, based on previous employee conduct. Remain calm and don't allow yourself to be influenced by any gossip or hysteria around the incident.

(2) Get all the facts

If an employee makes a complaint about another member of staff, it is important to wade through the emotions and establish the facts. This may involve a full investigation, or simply having a quiet word with everyone involved.

(3) Follow your grievance policy and investigations

If an official complaint has been raised, you are obliged as an employer to deal with it. Your company should already have a grievance policy in place, so follow it to the letter. If you haven't set a grievance policy up yet, simply make a note of everything that happens during your investigation and attribute names and dates. The grievance should be set out in writing, and a copy of evidence given to the person or people involved.

(4) Carry out interviews

Give everyone involved, the opportunity to tell their side of the story. Meet individuals in private and advise them that they are allowed to bring a representative with them to the meeting (this could be a union representative, an impartial colleague, or a friend). Make a note of everything they say to refer back to later, and ensure they sign their written statement.

(5) Be Discrete

Treat the information that is given to you by individuals - either at the event, the 'morning after' or in online discussions - with an appropriate level of discretion. Telling everyone that Sue has made you aware of what is going on will not endear Sue to her colleagues, and will ensure she will never tell you anything ever again! Make sure you have employees' permission to name them if you need to, or make sure the evidence that give you does not accidently reveal them.

(6) Make an informed decision

Based on the evidence you've been given, you should make a carefully informed decision and be clear about your reasons for that decision, including logging all the evidence.

(7) Follow the disciplinary procedure

Once your decision has been made, follow your standard disciplinary procedure. Select an appropriate level of discipline for the incident. This may be a verbal warning, written warning, or instant dismissal. Be clear about what the appropriate level for the incident involved, and be equitable in your issuing of the discipline.

(8) Take action!

It is important for everyone to learn from incidents, with the intention that they aren't repeated. If the incident has highlighted certain issues, for example in your team, an operational process or the running of an event, then make sure you take decisive action to change the circumstances that allowed it to happen. Communicate any changes with your employees, remind them of your company values, and reassure them that you aim to operate in a fair and friendly manner. Then make sure you do so!

I sincerely hope your Christmas parties are fun, festive, and incident-free. But just in case you find yourself with a human resources hangover, I hope you find this information useful.

Finally, I wish you all a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous 2013!