As the festive party season approaches, businesses are preparing for the annual office Christmas party as a way of thanking employees for their hard work over the preceding year. It’s certainly a chance for the team to let their hair down, engage with one another outside of the usual workplace surroundings and let off some steam, especially if there is a free bar! However, what may seem like harmless fun, can often lead to difficult issues for employers. The months surrounding the festive season are usually the busiest in an employment lawyer’s calendar flowing from issues following the office Christmas do.
Christmas parties therefore have the potential to cause resulting ramifications which employers can in some instances end up dealing with for weeks and months after the actual event. Employers can also be held vicariously liable for employee’s conduct which is deemed to have taken place ‘within the course of employment’ meaning that companies must approach the office Christmas party with thought and consideration on account of a number of potential issues.
While most would agree that scrapping the Christmas party entirely is definitely not the way forward (no-one wants to be ‘bah-humbug’) there are certain steps that employers can take to ensure their business and employees are protected and that the risk of grievances, employment tribunal claims and vicarious liability is limited as far as possible.
To prevent any discrimination complaints, take an inclusive approach and make sure all members of staff are invited including those on maternity, paternity, adoption, shared parental leave and even sickness absence leave (dependant on the illness). You might also want to consider how staff will get to the party and get home safely afterwards. You should also consider whether it is appropriate/necessary to make reasonable adjustments for disabled employees.
Furthermore, staff should be trained on harassment and bullying in the workplace and also sexual harassment to ensure staff understand what can potentially constitute harassment and where the boundaries lie. Christmas parties can result in claims of harassment including sexual harassment and resulting grievances which in turn may result in the need for investigations and potentially disciplinary action. In order to protect from this, robust policies should be in place and should be communicated to staff effectively.
In Livesey v Parker Merchanting, an employee was harassed on the way home from a Christmas Party and was able to claim against the employer as the conduct was viewed as a continuation of harassment that had occurred earlier at the Christmas party.
Alcohol/drug use and/or fuelled behaviour is a common cause of disciplinary action following the Christmas party; therefore educating the staff as to the company’s expectations of behaviour at the function and the potential consequences of misbehaviour is good practice. Emphasise that any incidents of bullying, discrimination, harassment, violence or other drunken behaviour will not be tolerated. It should also confirm how any unacceptable behaviour will be dealt with.
It is important to make sure policies and procedures are up-to-date and in place to provide transparency for employees on the do’s and don’ts concerning their personal and professional social/business media accounts. An increasing risk is the temptation to share office party antics on sites such as Facebook and Twitter which may bring about reputational damage and potentially data protection issues for those who appear in the images who had not given consent to such images being shared on social/business media platforms.
Post party absenteeism can also be an issue for employers and although this is a decision for employers as to how tolerant they are in relation to lateness or absenteeism following the Christmas party again, company’s may be prudent to warn against this within any pre-Christmas party communication to staff. Employers should also be aware of employees who turn up the following day to work still under the influence, especially if they drive or operate machinery.
Finally, take any complaints from staff seriously!
If you are not sure if your policies meet the necessary requirements and think you would benefit from an overview, please contact Sarah Collier, Head of Employment who can review your policies and if need be, draft bespoke policies tailored to you and your business. We also deliver on-site bespoke training sessions on bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. For further details please get in touch.