Office parties can leave employers damaged, says Ann Frances Cooney
Offering advice against running into legal problems at the office Christmas party is often met with rolling eyes and sighs of derision – it seems to be the lot of an employment lawyer to invoke the spirit of Scrooge. But it’s for good reason.
Take the employer which found itself on the receiving end of a successful unfair dismissal claim after three employees got drunk and had a fight, after seven hours of drinking at a free bar laid on by the company. The free bar was a significant factor, having been judged as tacitly condoning their behaviour.
Or there was the employee who claimed his boss had promised him a higher salary “in due course” during a chat at the Christmas party. His pay remained static so he resigned and claimed constructive dismissal.
Christmas parties should be fun, and most pass off without incident, but where booze is involved, the risk of sexual harassment, alcohol-fuelled brawls, religious discrimination and post-party absenteeism increase exponentially.
That means there are a few things employers need to bear in mind.
The office Christmas party is still a work-related activity, so set the boundaries of acceptable behaviour while acknowledging that employees will want to let their hair down.
Provide clear written guidance to all employees about acceptable standards of behaviour at work-related social events, equal opportunities and harassment, as well as the disciplinary sanctions that could result from breaches of the rules. Make it clear that fighting, excessive alcohol consumption, the use of illegal drugs, inappropriate behaviour, sexist or racist remarks and comments about sexual orientation, disability, age or religion will not be tolerated.
Despite its festive atmosphere, an office Christmas party is legally an extension of the office environment even if it is held offsite and outside working hours. Employers are therefore likely to remain liable for acts of harassment, discrimination, assault or other unwanted conduct carried out by their employees.
Do not discipline any employees at the party itself. Send them home if necessary and deal with the incident when you are back at the office – and everyone is sober.
You should also consider how your employees will get home after the party, since an employer might still be responsible for inebriated employees who drive home. Issue advice in advance about not drinking and driving – and bear in mind the reduced alcohol limit coming into force on 5 December, so advise anyone planning to drive home to avoid alcohol altogether. Think also about providing transport home, such as laying on coaches to leave at set times during and at the end of the event or ending the event before public transport stops. At the very least encourage employees to think about how they will get home, provide phone numbers for local registered cab companies and suggest employees check the time of their last train home.
There are likely to be a few hangovers the next day, so be clear about your expectations regarding absence. Ensure that all staff know the extent to which you will be lenient about coming to work late and that, if your expectations are breached, disciplinary action may be taken.
Be careful – a past history of festive tolerance, particularly where alcohol consumption at lunchtime is concerned, could be used as evidence that disciplinary action against an individual is unfair.
One important point to note in all of this: do not insist that all staff attend the office Christmas party. Christmas is a Christian holiday, so do not pressure someone to attend if they do not want to on religious grounds. If the event is out of hours, remember also that some people have family responsibilities that may prevent them coming.
Beyond the Christmas party, there are other things to consider. If you are running a Secret Santa, for example, make sure staff use common sense. Gifts should be inoffensive, and it’s better to err on the side of caution. Some gifts have sparked complaints in the past: for example, naughty joke books might be hilarious to the giver and onlookers, but could humiliate the recipient.
Alcohol, high spirits and imminent holidays can and have left employers with more than a hangover in the past – a few sensible precautions can prevent your office Christmas from turning into a turkey.
• Ann Frances Cooney is senior associate in the employment law team at HBJ Gateley www.gateleyuk.com