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Thursday, 19 November 2015 09:43

The Awful Choice Parties & Gifts

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With Christmas season now officially here I thought it would be a good time to reissue previous year’s advice.  There are many horror stories about office parties and their implications for employers, but you should not be afraid of them - providing you take some simple steps beforehand.

Hopefully anyone with responsibility for HR will know the steps they need to take but for the sake of completeness, we have set out some of the basics below:

  • Even if your office function is off site and out of working hours, you may still be liable for actions and negligence by your employees whilst at an office function.
  • Without wanting to be a killjoy, you need to remind your employees (ideally in writing) that they are still in 'work mode' whilst at the party and any incidents will be dealt with using your standard disciplinary procedures.
  • You should emphasise that any incidents of harassment, violence or excessive drunken behaviour will not be tolerated and the fact that employees may have had something to drink will not be accepted as an excuse.
  • You need to remind employees that they should not drink and drive - good advice at any time, but particularly if you are supplying alcohol. You may want to consider laying on transport.
  • You should also make it clear that if your employees are bringing partners they will also be expected to behave in an appropriate manner.
  • After the party if any of your employees makes a complaint about the behaviour of another employee after the party, you should investigate it in a formal and thorough manner, as you would if it had occurred at work. It should be borne in mind that failure to deal effectively with a complaint of harassment could lead to a claim of sex or race discrimination or even constructive dismissal.

So without dampening everyone's spirits, you just need to ensure that employees and their guests are aware of the limits before the event. Many firms will be using an office function as a 'thank you' to staff who have worked hard through what for may have been a difficult year, and if this is the case, a word of thanks would also not be out of place.

Now for presents. Where’s last year’s list? We sent Aunt Mabel a present last year but did she send us one, so should we send her one this time? Difficult questions indeed, but quite superficial when compared with the issues surrounding gifts between companies.

Actually these gifts, although classed as company-to-company, are usually company to individual, and that individual probably is someone who places orders or contracts. But how lawful, how ethical and how effective are the gifts? Looking at the last of those three questions: if they are not effective and achieve nothing, what is the point of them? Are they really just a token of thanks or more likely a “please” for more business? If they are signalling “please” rather than “thank you”, then they are obviously a bribe and as such are likely to be judged a breach of the Bribery Act.

Bribes are not only unlawful but also unethical. Really the only way that a gift between companies can be neither unlawful nor unethical is if it is given by a company to a supplier as a token of appreciation for services rendered. You are unlikely to ask a supplier for more business.

A further unfairness can show in the receipt of a present. Bungo Components supplies United Widgets with components. Orders are placed by the buyer of United Widgets, Mr Byers; the products are assembled by Mr Maykhem; they are sold by Miss Sayle; the goods are invoiced and the money received by Mr Cash; and the chief executive is Mrs Boss. Who then should get the bottle of whisky? It usually goes to the buyer, but is that fair? And what if Mr Byers is head of the purchasing department but told a member of his staff, Miss Clarke, to source the cheapest supply of components while he dealt with strategic matters – who then gets the whisky?
These questions really put the issue of company-to-company Christmas gifts under the spotlight. A present from a supplier to a body on which it relies for business is bound to be viewed by a bystander as a bribe unless it is a means of advertising such as a displayed calendar. So giving such presents could bring the donor into legal difficulties. The recipient therefore would be well advised to say, as many companies do now say, that presents are unacceptable and must be returned.

Nevertheless if presents are accepted as a statement of thanks, they surely should not become the property of one person. A fair way to deal with presents would be, say, to give them to charity. Another way would be to put them on display to all employees, place a piece of paper alongside each, and have employees write bids on the paper, the highest bidder taking the present and the proceeds going to charity. This would be a useful way of raising money for charity, be seen by everyone to be fair, and would remove the taint of bribery.

Confused? Well, that’s Christmas shopping for you! If you want to make life simple and safe, forget about inter-company presents and just send a letter of thanks to your customers and suppliers. They probably would put it on a notice board, many of their employees would see it and appreciate it, and it thus would do far more good than a present. Think about it.

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