Simon Allison: Beware the office Christmas party

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I’ve always hated the office Christmas party.

I can’t decide if it is because of the inevitable prospect of seeing photos of myself on Facebook which (at the time), I had encouraged colleagues to take. Or whether it is the level of concentration required to hear what colleagues are mumbling to me at the free bar over the background noise of synth melodies and sleigh bells (Last Christmas by Wham!, anyone?).

it is not unusual for a bit of Christmas cheer to result in embarrassing events at the firm's Christmas get-together, but be careful about what  you do and say. Picture: PA

it is not unusual for a bit of Christmas cheer to result in embarrassing events at the firm's Christmas get-together, but be careful about what you do and say. Picture: PA

Or maybe it is because of the yearly alcohol-fuelled inappropriate outburst from a colleague telling me that they have always loved me… OK, so that last one has never actually happened to me.

However, it is not unusual for a bit of Christmas cheer mixed with a few brandy-laden eggnogs to result in a PDOA (a public display of [office] affection).

Office workers beware

At some point before the cashroom-girls-drunken-group-selfie, you should remind yourself that 
unwanted advances to colleagues are likely to fall foul of the acceptable conduct standards set by your employer. Whilst at the time you may think of your colleague as your star-crossed lover, it’s probably better for you to pick someone that you don’t have to sit next to for the rest of the year. It is likely that, if you misbehave at the office Christmas party, you will be disciplined for this when you return to work on the Monday morning.

Additionally (and preferably before Tommy from the mail room kills it on the karaoke), you should remind yourself that it would not be appropriate to speak more frankly to your boss about a pay rise or to colleagues about their annoying habits at the Christmas Party.

Again, disciplinary action may follow on any assertive behaviour, regardless of the fact that this behaviour was caused by the free bar. If you can’t request a pay rise when sober, don’t do it when drunk.

And lastly, before the IT director starts tearing up the dancefloor, remember that the employer’s sickness and absence policy is likely to be applied consistently throughout the festive season. If your Christmas party is mid-week and you choose to over-indulge, it is unlikely that any subsequent duvet days will be ignored. Festive hangovers and booze flu are not likely to be acceptable reasons for absences, regardless of the timing of the office party.

Don’t let yourself be the one that your colleagues talk about for the rest of the year.

Employers beware

As an employment lawyer, it is a disappointing truth that an employer is liable for any discriminatory acts of its employees which are carried out in the course of employment. This means that an employer could be liable to an employee who is faced with unwanted advances by a colleague at the office Christmas party.

The law is also clear that it does not matter whether these advances are carried out with the employer’s knowledge or approval. It is, however, a defence for the employer to demonstrate that it took “all reasonable steps” to prevent the colleague from harassing that employee.

There is no fixed list for what would amount to all reasonable steps but it would include things like having effective policies on equality and harassment and ensuring that the policies are kept up to date. It will also include training all staff, especially managers, about the policies – and perhaps most importantly, investigating any allegations of discrimination and harassment and dealing with these issues fairly and thoroughly.

If the all reasonable steps defence succeeds, the employer will not be liable for the discriminatory acts, even if they were committed in the course of employment.

But take my advice, as soon as you spot the first sprig of mistletoe 
heading in your direction or hear the opening bars of Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, grab hold of your pint and run for the nearest exit …

Simon Allison is an Employment Partner at Blackadders: @EmpLawyerSimon