Employers Beware – Christmas Parties

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.

The one thing that is clear, says Pam Sidhu, Head of Employment at the Wilkes Partnership, is that incidents occurring during this time can potentially land the employee and/ or employer in trouble. 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, careful planning and appropriate communication by employers with their employees should allow for a safe and happy end to the year.

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.

Additionally, staff of all religions should be considered. Some religions do not celebrate Christmas and employees of those religions may not wish to attend the party and should not be pressured to do so or disadvantaged by not participating.

Further, 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. It would be prudent to check any dietary issues with staff before the event.

If there is an over demand for annual leave requests for 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 employment tribunal claims every year. Pam advises that employers should remind employees prior to the party that they are representing the organisation and set the boundaries in terms of what is acceptable and unacceptable in terms of standard 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.

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 will be vicariously liable for the actions of an employee in this respect, advises Pam. There are, however, simple steps an employer can take to mitigate this risk.

There is 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 they receive 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.

According to Pam it may be an 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 may result in unsafe disciplinary decisions being made.

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.

For further information or to discuss any employment law issues, please contact Pam Sidhu or the employment team on 0121 233 4333.