December 8 2010.

A small business support organisation is urging employers to avoid the potential pitfalls of Christmas as the festive season gets into full swing.

The Forum of Private Business is warning business owners to be aware of seasonal dangers which may leave them with a nasty financial hangover long after the yuletide celebrations have come to an end.

The Christmas period presents a number of issues, ranging from health and safety risks to staff rotas, which could leave employers open to litigation and staff disputes.

But with their mix of drink, high spirits and merriment, Christmas parties are one of the main potential sources of problems.

In order to comply with workplace legislation, the Forum is advising business owners to:

- Avoid pressurising staff to attend Christmas parties. They may not want to due to factors such as faith or abstinence from drink.

- Let staff who are attending Christmas parties know in advance that acceptable standards of behaviour are expected of them. Make it clear that your usual disciplinary policies apply, even if the party is being held away from the workplace.

- Watch out for drug use. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, it is an offence for an employer to permit or even ignore drug use on their premises. Drug use in the workplace may also constitute a breach of health and safety regulations.

- Make it clear to staff if they are expected to turn up for work as normal the following day, hangover or not. Lead by example too - surveys have suggested that senior managers are more likely to call in sick the day after a Christmas party than junior staff members.

- Keep it clean and don't let the tipple flow too freely. Saucy gifts and games could easily lead down the dangerous path to a tribunal, while too much alcohol could spark arguments and fights, leaving employers dealing with tricky disciplinary issues long after the office decoration have been taken down.

Business owners should also remember to act professionally when socialising with staff and not let anything slip which they wouldn't do in the office, such as personal opinions of other employees.

However, putting on a Christmas party does have an upside for employers. Up to £150 per head, the cost of holding the party is an allowable tax deduction and VAT can also be recovered on staff entertaining expenditure.

Forum chief executive Phil Orford said: "No-one wants to dampen the festive spirit and we believe Christmas parties are great for boosting workplace morale and allowing staff to let their hair down.

"But business owners do need to take some important precautions when holding Christmas parties if they want to guard against potential litigation.

"Most of the regulations which govern the normal working day also extend to the Christmas party, wherever it might be held, so employers need to ensure they're not leaving themselves open to claims, complaints and time-consuming employee disputes."

The Forum is offering smaller firms free advice on Christmas parties, along with Christmas holiday arrangements and wintry weather travel arrangements, via its website -  

The advice is available under the 'Hot tips' section of the Forum's website which can be viewed both by Forum members and non-members alike.

Any companies which have yet to work out their Christmas staffing arrangements can do so via an easy-to-follow guide which explains how the season's bank holidays fall this year, and also how staff payment entitlements should be calculated around the dates.

The article, put together by Forum HR advisors Qdos Consulting, also highlights forthcoming bank holiday arrangements.

Additionally, the Forum has also issued small firms with advice on how to cope with the continuing wintry weather.

The article includes guidance on employers' legal considerations when staff fail to make it into work due to snow or childcare commitments. It also advises companies to set up a 'bad weather policy' which sets out employees' rights and responsibilities in the event of weather-related disruptions.