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Office Christmas party – avoiding more than just a hangover

The Wilkes Partnership Solicitors

It is almost that time of year again.

The traditional Christmas party is an event that is eagerly anticipated in the majority of workplaces.

It can take many forms, in or outside the office premises, during or after work time, informal or formal. It is also an event that can leave participants with more than just a sore head from one too many at the free bar.

Let’s face it, it is the time of year when as well as free flowing booze, often participants can get carried away and end up letting more than just their hair down.

One thing that is certain, according to Sarah Begley, Employment Solicitor at The Wilkes Partnership, is that incidents that occur during this time can potentially land the employee and/or employer in trouble.

A lot of trouble. Workplace behaviour and what is deemed acceptable has been closely followed by the media in the wake of high profile scandals allegedly involving the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Sir Philip Green to name just two.

Now is the time for employers to get their house in order.

It is important to remember that employment laws apply even where a party takes place off work premises and outside working hours.

Employers could be liable for acts of discrimination, harassment, assault or other unwanted conduct by employees.

Whilst most parties pass with no more than a dodgy dance move or two and a fair share of hangovers, employers should bear in mind some simple measures to help the event pass without incident and reduce the potential risk.

Avoiding Discrimination

The first issue for an employer to consider comes in the planning stage of the party.

Arrangements for the party should be non-discriminatory.

If the party is away from office premises, the employer should ensure it has suitable access for disabled staff.

Staff of all religions should be considered.

Some religions do not celebrate Christmas and employees of those religions may not want to attend the party and should not be pressured to do so or disadvantaged by not doing so.

Additionally, certain religions forbid the drinking of alcohol or the eating of particular foods.

Employers therefore need to ensure soft drinks are equally available and the menu options suitably varied where possible, so as to make the event as inclusive as possible.

If there is an over demand for annual leave requests the day following the party, employers should avoid automatically giving priority to those attending the party.

Acceptable Standards of Behaviour

Drink fuelled behaviour is the root cause of many tribunal claims every year.

Employers should remind employees prior to the party that they are representing the organisation and set the boundaries in terms of what are acceptable/unacceptable standards of behaviour.

Employers should make clear to employees that any misconduct at the party will be deemed to be misconduct at work, highlighting the fact that disciplinary sanctions may follow if any employees are guilty of inappropriate behaviour.

It is also worth ensuring that the company’s own policies and procedures in this regard are up to date and encourage all staff to familiarise themselves with the policies prior to the party taking place.

Harassment

Remember that employers may be liable for incidents of harassment that take place at work related social events and could face tribunal claims.

Whilst the Christmas party has often been viewed as the opportunity to pursue that office crush, if the feelings are not reciprocated then the recipient of that advance may, with some justification, feel that they have been subjected to harassment.

Fundamentally an employer needs to be aware that they can be vicariously liable for the actions of an employee in this respect, advises Sarah. There are however simple steps an employer can take to mitigate this risk.

There's no harm, and indeed every benefit, in employers reminding employees of the need to behave and treat each other with respect.

An up to date harassment policy, which is brought to the attention of all staff, will also help to reduce the risk of harassment occurring and go some way to protect the employer.

Additionally, employers should investigate any complaints received promptly.

Absence

Finally there comes the morning after the night before.

Where the Christmas party takes place on a working night, there is always the possibility that employees will "pull a sickie" the next day as a result of over-exuberance.

It is a good idea to warn staff in advance that unauthorised absence the day after the Christmas party may result in disciplinary action.

To mitigate this risk, employers could encourage employees to book annual leave, subject to maintaining adequate staff levels.

Where an employer has a suspicion that the real reason for unauthorised absence is too much alcohol the night before, they must ensure this is in fact most likely the case before taking any action and apply any sanction consistently in line with other cases. 

Failure to do so could potentially result in unsafe disciplinary action.

Ultimately the Christmas party is about rewarding and thanking your staff for their efforts over the preceding year.

Following the basic steps above in advance of the party will only serve to enhance everyone’s enjoyment of it.

If you have any query arising from this update, please contact Sarah Begley on 0121 733 4312 or sbegley@wilkes.co.uk or any member of the Employment team.