Nobody wants another online work Christmas party, but with Covid cases surging and immunity waning for the vaccinated, should such in-person events go ahead?
As it stands, the Government has not advised employers to cancel festive parties.
However, during the week Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan encouraged people not to attend.
“We’re advising people to stay at home as much as possible,” he said when asked if Christmas parties should go ahead.
The lack of clear advice on the matter will leave many employers in a tricky situation – so here’s some advice from an employment law expert.
What do employers need to think about?
There are a few things employers should consider before deciding whether or not to hold a staff party.
Patrick Walshe, Partner and Employment Law expert at Philip Lee law firm pointed out that the employer’s obligation to provide a ‘safe place of work’ extends to workplace social events.
This means employers need to be sure that the venue for the party complies in full with all the public health and public safety rules in place.
“If this can’t be guaranteed, an employer will have to ask themselves if it is worth going ahead with the event – or at least, worth going ahead with the event in that particular venue,” Mr Walshe said.
Venue aside, if the party does go ahead, he said employers should also ensure that staff continue to follow the public health rules, especially if alcohol is taken.
“There is no harm at all – and, in fact it is probably essential to brief staff in advance and remind them to follow the rules at all times,” he said.
What if employees hold unofficial parties?
The other scenario employers need to consider is what happens if employees decide to hold unofficial Christmas parties or gatherings.
Mr Walshe said employers need to think about whether such events could be seen to be connected with the workplace.
“The courts and tribunals are prepared to consider an off-site function as having a connection with the office in certain circumstances,” he warned.
Mr Walshe said employers should ask themselves four questions in particular.
- Has the event been organised during office hours?
- Is the event being publicised within the office by the social committee or another committee associated with the office?
- Is the company paying for the event?
- In the round, could the event reasonably be deemed to be ‘official’?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is ‘yes’, then Mr Walshe said an employer should regard the party as having some form of connection with the office.
“In those circumstances, an employer should take whatever steps it deems necessary to safeguard its position.
“For example, if the official Christmas party has been cancelled, the employer could consider withdrawing any support for the unofficial Christmas party or parties,” he advised.
What about online parties?
While an online party may not be top of your list, HR group CIPD Ireland is advising employers to consider all options in relation to Christmas parties – including the possibility of hosting them online, gathering people in smaller groups, or deferring until a later date.
“Health and safety in the workplace must be the number one priority for employers and employees,” said Mary Connaughton, Director of CIPD Ireland.
“While many of us were hoping to be able to host an in-person celebration this year, the repeated advice to reduce ‘risk activities’ and rising coronavirus cases are all factors that are making it more difficult to plan a traditional event,” she said.
As an alternative, CIPD Ireland is suggesting that employers facilitate some extra time off for their team.
“Fatigue is a real issue in workplaces around the country as we’ve been working hard to keep each other safe for almost two years.
“Scheduling extra leave to acknowledge the efforts that have been made would go a long way towards showing appreciation for workers’ efforts to date,” she said.
Following the advice from Government this week that employers should continue working from home, Ms Connaughton said she would advise employers to keep an eye out for staff members who may be feeling isolated.
“Many people haven’t yet had the chance to return to on-site working and may be further impacted by social isolation from their work colleagues.
“Mental health and wellbeing concerns have escalated during the pandemic and need to be uppermost in employers’ minds, especially as winter approaches,” she said.
What impact will cancellations have on the hospitality sector?
If employers do choose to cancel in-person Christmas parties, there is no doubt this will have a huge impact on the hospitality industry.
For many businesses, the Christmas season accounts for a huge portion of their annual revenue.
This week, restaurants, pubs and hotels right across the country have been reporting high levels of cancellations.
Adrian Cummins CEO of the Restaurants Association of Ireland said, “mixed messaging” from public health officials and Government regarding social events has caused confusion for the public.
Mr Cummins said this is already having an impact on hospitality businesses that are adhering to the public health measures currently in place.
The Irish Hotels Federation (IHF) said hotels and guesthouses are working with event organisers and guests to ensure that all Government guidelines are adhered to when it comes to organising Christmas parties.
However, it said they are hearing from their members that many businesses are adopting a “cautious approach” when it comes to hosting parties and even meetings.
“Some are changing their plans to avoid bringing larger groups of employees together including postponing, or in a number of cases cancelling events, while others are opting for small groups,” the IHF said in a statement.
On a positive note, the IHF said a number of businesses are purchasing hotel and guesthouse vouchers for their employees to use in their own time – as a way of rewarding their employees and also supporting the hotel sector.
This suggests that many employers will not only be seeking to look after their staff members this Christmas, but will also be looking for ways to support the wider hospitality sector, which looks set to miss out on some of that vital Christmas trade over the next few weeks.