Santa STILL says “No No No” at this 2nd socially-distanced COVID office Christmas party!
The dos and don’ts of the office Christmas party
Although the office Christmas party is THE highlight of the year and an excellent opportunity for staff at all levels to mingle and to let their hair down together at the end of a long hard (2nd COVID) year, (especially this last year – good riddance 2021 with all your (impossible to understand and ever-changing social-distancing rules, LeaveHomeSafe apps, travel restrictions, mandatory hotel quarantine and the recent emergence of the dastardly omicron!), both employers and employees alike should be very aware that the office Christmas party is primarily a professional workplace event (wherever the party is held).
With daily worldwide news reports about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and online social media postings instantaneously exposing photographs (and so much worse, videos) of shenanigans at any work or social event anywhere on the planet, any scandalous or distasteful publicity can (and usually does) cause irreparable reputational damage to corporate brands (however big the company) and can be career-ending for employees (however senior they are).
This jolly annual seasonal message gives ‘top tips’ for staging a publicity-free and career-saving office Christmas party.
Most of the following examples are REAL CASES which we have handled over the years (usually during late December / early January)!
You better watch out…
Being on your best behaviour doesn’t only apply to children. Yes, Christmas parties are great fun with free-flow drinks and music, surrounded by happy people and good food – everyone is enjoying themselves, and having a good time. But this is where you need to be aware of having too much of a good time – it’s important to keep things professional as at the end of the day, it’s still a work event even when you don’t realise you’re still on the (work) clock, so don’t do anything silly that might jeopardize your reputation…or your job.
You better not cry…
Although at most office Christmas parties, alcohol is free-flow (and often pretty good quality), this is an offer, not a challenge! Employers should be wary about the consequences of providing free-flow alcohol at work functions. In a recent case in the UK, the Fair Work Commission emphasised that employers cannot hold their employees to the same standard of conduct at work functions where the employer provides unlimited free alcohol. Consequently, the amount of free-flow alcohol provided by employers at their work events may well have unwanted consequences for the contentious issue of when an employee’s intoxicated conduct at a work function may justify disciplinary measures or even dismissal. Employers should, therefore, carefully consider how (and how much) alcohol is served at work functions. As most beer adverts say these days…Drink responsibly and enjoy your Christmas tipple, not topple! All-day / long lunch into dinner Christmas parties are ALWAYS a pretty bad idea!
You better not pout…
The office Christmas party is primarily a professional workplace event. Moaning about inefficient office systems or complaining about your lazy boss or assistant (to your boss or assistant, or to anyone else who wants to hear), or spreading salacious office gossip about your co-workers is all behaviour that will be remembered (and known to everyone else in the office) at the start of the next working day. Christmas good cheer and goodwill to your fellow co-workers is all you need. Remember, Silent Night!
You better not shout…I’m telling you why…
Everyone goes to parties to have fun. No one likes it when people get aggressive and spoil the party. An office party is not an environment in which you want to get rowdy – late night conversations have a way of getting heated and very quickly. With that being said, you should be responsible for your own alcohol intake if you’re prone to getting aggressive when under the influence of alcohol in case any arguments or fights break out.
Be Careful What You Wish For
When you’re a few drinks in, having a great time and suddenly in the mood for giving, the office Christmas party is definitely NOT the appropriate venue to conduct annual staff appraisals or to make promises about bonuses or pay rises in the New Year (people will remember and will expect you to follow through with your promise). Even informal comments on staff performance or remuneration may (and probably will) be misconstrued and could ultimately lead to unwanted and unintended employment disputes. Avoid at all costs (and run away from) any kind of conversations about work performance, salary and bonuses!
Let it snow…oh no no no!
Just say NO to drugs! An office party is definitely not the place where you should take any drugs for any kind of a ‘pick me up’. First of all, it’s extremely obvious, absolutely unnecessary and it’s really not going to look good if your boss finds out. Oh, and it’s totally illegal!
It’s obviously pretty important to keep in mind that you’re in a professional setting. Don’t start spilling all your personal secrets and feelings about life – especially if you don’t know or trust your co-workers very much. You don’t want something held against you in the future. Avoid any conversation that starts along the lines of… “Marion, you’re actually a really nice person. When I first met you, I thought you were a ####…”. This may seem acceptable at the time (usually after a couple of large G&Ts), but your co-worker will remember and in the cold light of day, who knows how they’ll interpret your back-handed compliment! Avoid starting controversial conversations with colleagues, such as religion and politics. You may feel strongly about a topic or enjoy a debate but do try to keep your (strong) opinions to yourself, as you could end up offending someone (especially after a few glasses of wine).
Christmas kisses…a big no no no!
No kissing any other member of staff under the mistletoe especially with COVID social-distancing rules! The Christmas party is not the place at which you want to be making a pass at a fellow colleague. Even at the office Christmas party (whether or not held in the office), employers remain liable for acts of harassment, discrimination, assault or other inappropriate conduct of their employees. If you are in a personal relationship with a fellow colleague, keep the romance out of the office party – be professional. Mistletoe as a party decoration is best avoided!
What ARE you wearing?
You really don’t want to be only the person dressed as an elf or reindeer when the rest of the room is in usual smart-casual office clothes or dressed to impress (the bowers.law 2021 Christmas party dress code)! Make sure you know the dress code by checking in advance what your colleagues are wearing and follow suit. If your office Christmas party is fancy dress, do not take advantage of the situation by going as your favourite character from Magic Mike or Showgirls!
- Don’t dress down too casually: Showing up in joggers and a hoody shows a lack of effort and reeks of ingratitude and disrespect.
- Don’t dress too skimpily: It’s a given – flashing too much (male or female) skin is inappropriate.
- Don’t dress up too “posh”: If it isn’t a ball, don’t show up in a ball gown or tuxedo! You’ll feel uncomfortable, which will rub-off on others.
Check the dress code and use your common sense!
Both employers and employees should be culturally sensitive, and respectful of employees who, for whatever reason, may not want to drink alcohol or eat certain foods. Employers should make sure that there are plenty of alternatives. Employers should generally be mindful of the different ways in which their employees will celebrate the holiday season, especially in such a diverse city as Hong Kong.
Keep your Secret Santa presents appropriate and non-contentious. A festive scented candle does the job just fine!
Social media posts about office parties (especially Christmas ones) are just generally a very, very bad idea. Seeing as issues with social media in the workplace are becoming increasingly common, staff handbooks should be updated to include a comprehensive social media policy on what is, and (more importantly) what is unacceptable for employees to post online. Employers should make sure that the staff handbook is up-to-date and may wish to consider circulating it (by way of a gentle reminder) to all employees shortly before the office Christmas party. Don’t mix your drinks, and definitely don’t mix social media and the office Christmas party!
The More the Merrier?
For obvious reasons – think very carefully before inviting clients and other business stakeholders to join your office Christmas party. Telling your best client (with the benefit of some Dutch courage) in front of other staff that the latest invoice really should be paid before the New Year really isn’t the best way of keeping that client!
No “After-Party” in Santa’s Grotto
Before the Christmas party and so as to minimise exposure to liability for any after-hours shenanigans in Lan Kwai Fong or Soho, employers should make it clear to staff that any “after-party” is not part of any work function, is not part of the office Christmas Party, and is something which employees attend in a private social setting. Separating the two functions will not totally eliminate liability for any misconduct by employees at the “after-party“, but should minimise risk.
I’ll Be Coming Home for Christmas
Employers should plan party transport logistics. If the party is after work on a weekday (which is usually the case in Hong Kong) and some distance from the office, employers should arrange transport from the office to the party venue. Employers should also consider how employees will get home after the party if there are limited public transport options in the area. If alcohol is served (which it inevitably will be), employers should be mindful about drink-driving, so it’s a good idea to provide transport home (or to a central dropping-off point) at the end of the event. If this is too difficult or impractical to arrange (as it often will be), employers should send out an email to all staff as a matter of good practice before the office Christmas party to discourage drink- driving. Simple: Leave the car at home on the day of the office Christmas party!
Christmas Morning After The Night Before
A lousy hangover and last night’s acute embarrassment are not good reasons for calling in sick the next morning. Employees calling in sick the morning after the office Christmas party (especially those who made a bit of a spectacle of themselves late at night on the dance floor) may find themselves the subject of a disciplinary investigation for unauthorised absence from work. That said, if the office Christmas party is held on a working weeknight, employers should not expect Christmas miracles the next morning, and should be clear about expectations at the office the next day, the extent to which lateness will or will not be excused, and what disciplinary action may be taken if those expectations are not met. Top Tip: Try to have the office Christmas party on a Friday!
Most importantly, go to the party and have a good time! Although attendance at the office Christmas party is usually optional, the reality is that no one likes a Scrooge, and not attending the office Christmas party doesn’t usually go down too well with colleagues.
With all these festive ‘top tips’ in mind, make sure to have a very merry (and politically correct, responsible, mindful, woke and socially-distanced) Christmas!
For further information, please contact:
Kevin Bowers, Partner, Bowers.Law