HR nightmares before Christmas | Employers’ festive FAQs answered

Written on 4 November 2023

It might be the most wonderful time of the year, but for employers and HR professionals, the lead up to Christmas can be a particularly stressful period.

Of course, while you will want to embrace the spirit of the season, there are a number of challenges that crop up every year like clockwork which will demand your attention. From juggling annual leave requests to staff who turn up to work merry (and not so bright), it’s important to manage seasonal issues swiftly and in line with the law.

Here are just some of the HR obstacles you might encounter during the festive period and how to overcome them.


What should I do if one of my employees turns up to work drunk?

With so many occasions to drink – from non-work-related social gatherings to the annual Christmas party – it’s easy to have one too many. While employees might swear that they are immune to hangovers and that they will turn up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the following morning, they often forget that alcohol remains in the bloodstream for up to 24 hours following consumption. A heavy night of drinking may therefore render them unfit to work come 9am.

If you notice that an employee is visibly hungover and that this affecting productivity, call an informal meeting to explain that this isn’t acceptable and that they must get back on with work immediately. Hangovers are one thing, but an employee who turns up to work still under the influence is an even more serious concern, as this is not only unprofessional but can have serious consequences if they work in a safety-critical role. In these cases, it may be necessary to investigate and suspend the employee.

Remind employees to take it easy over the Christmas period – perhaps in a memo circulated to all staff – and make it clear that drunk or hungover employees will be dealt with in line with your alcohol and drug policy, which should be included within your Employee Handbook.

This should clearly state that if an employee reports for work unfit due to the influence of alcohol, this may be regarded as a gross misconduct offence. However, if you do go down this route, be aware that process is key to a fair dismissal.

Christmas Party Memo

Prevention is always better than cure. If you’re holding a party to reward your hard-working employees, download a copy of our Christmas party memo to distribute to staff in advance.

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We've always paid a Christmas bonus, but this year we're not in a position to. Can we just stop paying it?

The cost of living crisis isn’t just limited to individuals; it’s also being felt by businesses. With inflation and rising interest rates, energy price hikes and reduced consumer confidence, you may need to rethink ‘nice to haves’ like Christmas bonuses.

The first thing to consider here is whether the bonus relates to a clause in the employee’s contract of employment, or whether it is discretionary.

  • If the bonus is discretionary, it is up to you as the employer to choose when to pay the bonus, how to calculate it and the total amount that will be paid out. However, case law has made it clear that employers must not use their discretion in an irrational or perverse way.
  • If the bonus is contractual, then you are obligated to make these payments if the employee meets the necessary criteria. For example, if you set clear performance targets and the employee meets them, you will need to pay out.

It is common for bonuses to be a mixture of the two. For example, an employer may provide a contractual right for the employee to be eligible for the bonus scheme, but it will be subject to the discretion of the employer as to how much they will get.

Be aware, however, that if there is longstanding or established custom or practice to pay a Christmas bonus, it may become an implied term of the employee’s contract of employment. This means that although not set out in writing or even agreed orally, it may, over time, have become a part of the agreement between yourself and the employee.

I've caught a few of my employees online shopping during work time. How can I put a stop to this sort of thing?

The best way to deter employees from browsing the web when they should be working is to have a policy in place which deals with internet, phone and email use at work. This should form part of your Employee Handbook and should clearly state that excessive use of personal devices during working hours, or using work devices for anything other than their intended purpose, will be treated as misconduct and may lead to disciplinary action being taken.

Nobody wants to be disciplined, so a friendly but firm reminder of the rules over the festive season, where temptation to browse for bargains is high, might help to discourage these sorts of distractions before they become a serious strain on productivity.

We're facing a really busy period. Can I force my employees to work overtime to meet demand?

While this time of year requires all hands on deck, you can only require employees to work overtime if their contract allows for this. 

The Working Time Regulations stipulate that employees cannot work in excess of 48 hours per week, on average, over a 17-week reference period. You should therefore check whether there is a specific clause in the contracts you use which states that the employee agrees to opt out of this 48-hour working time limit. However, even with this provision, the employee has the right to change their mind and give notice to that effect.

Most of my employees want time off over Christmas. How do I deal with holiday requests fairly?

While you will want to keep staff in good spirits and allow them some down time over the holidays, it’s not always possible to accommodate everybody. If you’re dealing with multiple requests for the same dates, here are some tips: 

  • If your organisation is open all year round with no seasonable shutdowns, consider allowing employees to choose between time off during Christmas or summer. That way, those who aren’t granted time off in December are given priority when booking leave in popular summer months.
  • Set limits on how many consecutive days of leave an employee may take at any one time. This will prevent certain employees from monopolising in-demand dates and also means you’re not left without valuable members of your team for extended periods of time.
  • Employees who are parents will be particularly keen to have time off in the lead up to Christmas for nativity plays, parents evenings and other school events, so encourage teams to collaborate with each other to coordinate leave. This will ensure operational requirements are met and hopefully produce a solution that everyone is happy with.
  • Periodically review whether employees have taken leave. If they have a lot of leave still to take, remind them of this before the holiday year ends so that there is adequate time to agree dates that work for them and the business.

Above all, be fair and consistent. Often, the simplest and fairest way to manage leave is to accommodate requests on a first-come, first-served basis. However, even with this approach, it’s important to follow a defined process for requesting annual leave, as requiring one employee to submit a formal request while another’s preference for leave is granted verbally during an informal meeting is likely to invite issues.

How should I tackle sickness absence, especially those that I suspect might not be genuine?

You may notice a rise in sickness absence as Christmas approaches, which may or may not be genuine. If you suspect an employee is taking unauthorised absences to enjoy the festivities or indulge in some Christmas shopping, consider conducting return to work interviews after each absence, as the thought of being probed about the nature of their absence can be an effective deterrent.

If the employee provides vague, inadequate or frankly illogical reasons for their absence, asking for medical evidence is likely to reduce repeat offences if their sickness is in fact bogus.

If you have indisputable evidence that the employee’s absence isn’t genuine, this should be dealt with as a disciplinary issue. The level of punishment will be determined by the facts but could potentially include dismissal without notice. That said, always take care not to jump to conclusions, as this may give the employee grounds to suggest that such allegations amount to a breach of trust and confidence. Subsequently, if they have been employed for more than two years, they could claim constructive dismissal.

Your sickness absence policy should set benchmarks, known as trigger points, for unacceptable levels of frequent short-term sickness absence. If these trigger points are reached, this may initiate formal action; however, always proceed with caution if the absence is related to disability or pregnancy.

What's the best approach to gifts from clients?

Your employees may receive Christmas gifts from clients or suppliers in recognition of their hard work over the year. If so, in accordance with the Bribery Act 2010, it’s important that the acceptance of such gifts doesn’t give the appearance that staff may be unduly influenced when making decisions.

It’s a good idea to remind employees of your rules on gifts ahead of time. For example, you may require that all gifts and hospitality received must be entered in a register and that no personal gifts of a value in excess of set limit should be accepted without the express permission from their line manager.

I've noticed dress code is starting to slip. How can I combat this?

As the countdown to Christmas begins, people are winding down and dressing up, and dress code often goes out of the window. If staff start to push the boundaries (from extra layers to tinsel-embroidered, light-up Christmas jumpers), you may wish to make some allowances as a way of keeping morale high; however, in some cases, it’s simply not possible. For instance, health and safety rules may dictate that employees must always wear protective clothing, or formal dress may be required for public-facing roles.

If an employee turns up to work wearing something that’s not in line with your dress code, pull them aside discretely and remind them of the policy and what is considered to be acceptable dress. For first-instance, minor breaches, formal disciplinary proceedings is likely to be inappropriate; however, if they continue to flout the rules, then this may be a necessary course of action.

Related Content

Battling Christmas HR issues in your workplace?

Christmas is a perfect opportunity for team bonding and for employees to recharge their batteries ahead of the New Year. By tackling challenges head on, you will be able to enjoy a stress-free and productive period.

From juggling time off requests to misconduct issues arising from the Christmas party, if you’re in need of practical advice on any of the people problems you encounter this festive season, our qualified Employment Law and HR experts can guide you through the process quickly and compliantly.

For advice and support, call 0345 336 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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