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Stress-testing before celebrating a virtual office Christmas

View profile for Alexandra Dean
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Christmas traditionally brings a round of festive celebrations for customers and employees, but with current Covid-19 restrictions, companies are having to re-think drinks and dinners for customers and learn how to stage a virtual staff party.

Plans that venture into new territory will demand a doubling down on risk management.  Any corporate gifting and entertaining must stand up to the rules laid out in the Bribery Act, and an online Christmas party needs to be controlled to avoid employer liability from inappropriate staff behaviour. 

A recent poll found that 26% of employees had a virtual event planned for this year, but any company-organised office party, even online and out of working hours, is an extension of the workplace.  It’s a stiff test for company policies in the best of times, touching everything from diversity, equality, harassment, misconduct, complaints and even the use of social media.

This year, faced with the challenge of pandemic restrictions, event organisers have come up with creative ways to make the virtual office party night as exciting as possible, with team building ideas such as encouraging staff to take part in live comedy or song writing.  And many are turning to celebrity participants.  Monty Python’s John Cleese will join your online event for ten minutes for less than £600 and Dr Who alumni John Barrowman is a snip at £190.  Or wine buff Oz Clarke can do a night of wine tasting for a £5,000 fee, with four bottles of wine delivered to each person’s door for £85. 

Pre-event gift deliveries are a common option for virtual events, but whether or not alcohol is included, there is still a likelihood of drinking by those taking part if they are in their own home. 

The chance of loose words increases when inhibitions are relaxed and as most companies would expect to have a zero-tolerance policy towards alcohol in the workplace, it’s important to give staff a clear idea of what is acceptable.  Everyone need to know where the boundaries are in this different environment, and managers should be on the alert to monitor and safeguard what is happening in their team during the event, looking at both online interactions and any work-based team conversations or public social media postings.

It’s good practice to limit the amount of alcohol on offer when staging a work party, to have a clear boundary for when the event will close.  With a virtual event it will be harder to monitor drinking, so it is essential to spell out what is acceptable in pre-event briefings, but at least it is easy to press ‘end’ to finish the session, or to use the ‘mute’ button if anyone is getting out of line.

The other Christmas challenge for companies is likely to surround how to entertain and thank customers for their support during this difficult year.  Under the regime introduced by the Bribery Act 2010, any corporate hospitality or gifting must be reasonable and proportionate. 

As standard practice you must have adequate procedures and policies in place, as a company may be criminally liable if it fails to prevent bribery by employees, agents or other associates.  But in the current situation, where plans may be out of the ordinary and staff working on their own at home, it’s worth undertaking a risk assessment against any new plans and reminding everyone what sort of things are OK to give or receive.  Requiring people to get permission and to record everything related to corporate gifting or entertaining is always a good idea.

Hospitality and gifts are more likely to be interpreted as undue influence if there is no clear business development opportunity for the company, or in situations such as during a procurement process.  

Whether it's misconduct during the Christmas party, or an over-generous gift to a customer being courted for their business, such issues can have a direct impact on an organisation's reputation as well as opening the door to stiff penalties, so it's worth taking a close look at any new ideas.

At Gepp Solicitors we can advise on all aspects of Employment Law. For more information and guidance, please email deana@gepp.co.uk 

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.