Winter sickness and hangovers

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Christmas party season is almost upon us. While some office festivities are likely to be credit crunched, many companies will still reward their staff with the obligatory lunch or mince pie mingle.

Phil Sayers is a trainee solicitor at Coodes Solicitors in Truro. He writes about the impact the festive season can have on small businesses in the south west, from an employment perspective.

Employee absence days tend to be far higher over the winter months than at any other time of year and can be a real headache for employers during what can be a busy period in the run up to Christmas and immediately after.

Christmas parties can also prove to be a serious problem for employers but unfortunately short of not holding one (or carefully controlling what happens) not much can be done about it.

The unfortunate issues that can crop up are sexual harassment or injuries, both almost invariably involving alcohol, and one night of mayhem can cause long lasting hangovers for both employer and employee.

Generally these events are deemed to happen ‘in the course of employment’ and therefore employers will normally be vicariously liable for the actions of their employees during them.

There are ways to reduce these risks, such as holding them away from office premises and not providing any alcohol, but the risk cannot be removed altogether and the steps that would need to be taken to minimise them might defeat the point of having one.

That is if your company will actually be throwing a Christmas bash – according to an article in the Times, the era of the no-expense-spared black tie do is over for the time being.

Only 77% of private sector companies will provide a Christmas party or lunch next month, down from 84% in 2007, while only 67% of manufacturing companies are holding Christmas celebrations, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

No doubt many employers will suspect that some of their employees are taking time off due to hangovers in the coming months. If employers do have good evidence that an illness is faked then this would certainly be grounds for holding a disciplinary hearing, although it is doubtful that a first time offence and a short absence would warrant a dismissal (although fraudulently taking advantage of generous sick pay terms might do). Instead a warning would be the appropriate sanction.

As a practical point many employers may well conclude that it is better to turn a blind eye to a one-off suspicious absence rather than risk alienating a good employee through accusing them of being hungover; they may well take exception even if it is true!