HR’s festive survival guide

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Holiday, bonuses and sickness absence can all prove a headache during the festive period

The Christmas period can throw up several staffing issues for employers. In the interests of a merry Christmas and a happy New Year for all our advice is don’t get caught out – have clear policies and communicate them to staff now.

Here are six pitfalls HR professionals need to prepare for:

Holiday requests

Staff should follow the organisation’s normal policy for booking annual leave. In the absence of an agreement to the contrary, workers must give notice equal to twice the length of the holiday that they wish to take, although you may want to be a little more flexible at this time of year.

The kind of restrictions you may need to consider include requiring workers to use their annual leave entitlement to cover when the organisation will shut down; specifying the maximum amount of leave employees can take and when it may be taken; or restricting the number of workers who can be off at any one time. If an employee takes leave without approval the matter should be addressed with caution so that the penalty is not disproportionate.

Also, while staff do not have the explicit right to time off for religious observance, a refusal to grant Christian employees time off for any of the bank holidays with religious significance could amount to indirect religious discrimination.

Finally, when public holidays in the Christmas and New Year period fall on Saturdays and Sundays, alternative weekdays are declared public holidays. There is no statutory entitlement to paid leave for public holidays.

Christmas bonuses

Although very welcome, Christmas bonuses can be tricky for employers. Employees may often have a reasonable expectation that a bonus will always be paid, so to confirm these as discretionary there are specific actions employers should take. Consider whether the regularity of bonuses paid in the past means the payment has become part of the employees’ terms of employment through custom and practice. Also take into account whether the gift has been described as ‘discretionary’ each year and whether the employer has exercised that discretion before.

Another potential problem is promises given to employees by management at the Christmas party. While many cases brought by disappointed employees have been dismissed by tribunals, promises made at social functions can be contractually binding. So brief your senior staff beforehand.

Snow issues

It is important that the company communicates its attendance policy with regards to weather restrictions and how it can affect travel. Employees who do not work because of adverse weather are not entitled to be paid, so it is necessary to have a policy for those who cannot work from home. This might include providing the options of converting the day into paid holiday, taking unpaid leave, or making up the hours later. It is also advisable to have a written policy that is sent to all staff when adverse weather is predicted, so they are reminded and have the chance to make alternative arrangements where necessary.

Sickness absences

Winter means an increase in workers calling in sick. Employers should ensure employees are aware of their obligation to contact work on the first day of sickness. They should also hold back to work interviews when staff return where employees either fill in a self-certificate explaining their short-term sickness or hand in a doctor's letter (if the illness lasts more than seven days).

Staff failing to show up for work the day after the Christmas party? An employer can make deductions from employees’ pay if they turn up for work late, as long as the right to make deductions for unauthorised absence is in the employment contract. If disciplinary action is to be taken for lateness or non-attendance after the Christmas party employers should ensure that staff are informed this is a possibility beforehand.

Other religions

Employers need to consider employees of all faiths during the Christmas period. While they should not assume that people who don't celebrate Christmas wouldn’t want to take part in the celebrations; neither should they be put under pressure to do so. Under the Equality Act 2010 employees are protected from direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of their religion.

Employers should have a policy on religious observance during working hours and be supportive towards those whose religious festivals fall at different times of the year. Employers that do not already have a policy on religious holidays should consider one.

Secret Santa

‘Secret Santa’ is increasingly common but employers should be careful of the messages certain gifts can convey. Avoid gifts that could be taken as being offensive or suggestive. In terms of corporate hospitality and gifts at Christmas, employers need to provide clear guidance to their staff in light of bribery legislation and be conscious of the impartiality of the employer going forward.

Kim Hayton is HR director for FDR Law

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