Christmas employment issues: ensure you’re prepared for the festive season

BY Nick Tindley
01 November 2014

Christmas, present, gift, With the silly season upon us, this article will provide members with a few key employment relations tips to ensure people management success over the busy Christmas trading period.
Christmas trading can present many challenges for employers including managing employees leave, rostering, extended trading hours and engaging Christmas casuals, together with the often-forgotten risk of the staff Christmas parties where, unfortunately, some employees behave inappropriately. While each matter is not overly challenging for retailers, planning and forethought will ensure that your attention is not taken from business operations during this critical trading period.

Annual leave & blackout periods

Many retailers decide to implement a blackout period which prevents employees from taking annual leave during the busy Christmas season. When implementing a blackout period we recommend that businesses do so through a formal leave policy, Contract of Employment or appropriately worded memo to staff which identifies how leave should be applied for and what blackout periods exist.
Employers must be mindful that in the event that an employee requests leave during a blackout period, it is still important to carefully assess the reason for such request. Whilst an employer has the right to refuse a request for annual leave on ‘reasonable business grounds,’ consideration should also be given to the reasonableness of refusing any such request when taking into account the reason why the employee has applied for leave. In some cases a failure to grant annual leave without proper reason may create the risk of dispute or a claim, however, a well drafted policy or procedure will minimise this risk.

Engaging Christmas casuals

The Christmas peak season often leads to an increased staffing need and with extended trading hours and increased customers, businesses often look to engage Christmas casuals. Retailers who are employing Christmas casuals should establish the seasonal nature of the engagement upon the commencement of employment to ensure that there is a clear understanding by all persons concerned.

As a starting point, all Christmas casuals should be issued with a casual employment contract. The standard casual contracts available on the ARA ERMS portal are appropriate for use with Christmas casuals. It is also recommended to issue employees with a covering letter which outlines the seasonal nature of the placement, the probable length of engagement and explains that not all employees will be kept on following the Christmas period.
Retailers should also take note of the fact that casual employees who are engaged on a regular and systematic basis are able to commence an Unfair Dismissal Claim once they have served the required minimum engagement period (12 months for a small business with less than 15 employees, or six months for a business with 15 or more employees). In this respect this date should be kept in mind with regards to any regular and systematic casual employee who may work beyond the Christmas period.

Rostering

Rostering is an important element in running a retail establishment which, when done effectively, can help to minimise total wage costs. Retailers should be assessing their rostering needs for the Christmas period and look to find ways to reduce labour costs through ensuring the correct mix of employees are rostered at any one time. So what should you consider?

  • Have you rostered an appropriate number of supervisors/managers for each shift? You should keep in mind that you don’t want to have a top heavy roster with multiple, more costly managers or supervisors working unnecessarily;
  • Consider who are the most appropriate employees (from a cost perspective) to have working on shifts that attract overtime (if trading late, or on 24 hour trade over consecutive days);
  • Consider reaching agreement with employees to take overtime as time in lieu at another point in time when the business could absorb the headcount; and
  • Don’t forget to factor in maximum daily hours, rest and meal breaks between shifts.

By assessing your rostering needs early you can place yourself in a solid position to tackle the Christmas trading period in a cost effective and efficient manner.

Christmas parties

Managing the behaviour of employees in the workplace is often an unenviable task for any HR professional or WHS manager, particularly over the festive season. It’s important to ensure that your employees understand that when holding and attending work related Christmas parties, workplace policies, especially those relating to bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination, work health and safety still apply.

In the lead up to the festive season employers may like to consider the following steps in order to protect their businesses from risk:

  • Ensure you have up to date policies in place that address issues that may occur at the Christmas party. These policies should at least cover issues of harassment (including sexual harassment), Occupational Health & Safety and responsible provision of alcohol;
  • Amend existing policies where necessary to ensure that the company's expectations are set out clearly;
  • Ensure you have detailed procedures in place so as to properly investigate any concerns that arise and seek timely advice to ensure that the matter is effectively addressed;
  • Ensure all employees are aware of the expectations the businesses has of them in terms of behaving responsibly at work functions;
  • Remind employees that a failure to observe policies or procedures during the event may be used by the employer as a basis for disciplinary action which could lead to termination;
  • Make sure managers are aware of their responsibilities and have the authority to step in should things get out of control;
  • If there is an after party venue arranged make sure that staff are aware that this is a wholly separate private function and not considered part of the work Christmas party;and
  • Consider making arrangements to help employees get home after the event, such as cab fares or organising a bus.

In relation to drugs and alcohol at any festive event it’s all about managing the risk of a workplace incident or accident, including the risk to other employees, the public, the risk of property damage and the risk of reputational damage to the business. Be aware of obligations in regards to the responsible service of alcohol, and monitor your employees’ behaviour at an event.

Christmas is a very busy period - the key is to prepare for the challenges that come with it as early as possible. This will help you to get through the peak period smoothly while ensuring that you minimise the risk of any potential issues arising.

If you have any employment related queries you need assistance with over the busy Christmas period please call the ARA Employment Relations Team on 1300 368 041.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Tindley

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