We have all heard the horror stories of alcohol induced indiscretions under the mistletoe or embarrassing moment involving the photocopier.
While often mildly amusing at first glance, such incidents can carry serious repercussions for all involved. Whilst we all want to relax and enjoy the festivities it is important that the relevant steps are taken to ensure the celebrations are remembered for the right reasons not the wrong ones.
UK legislation is clear: your office party is an extension of your normal work environment. This means that the company may still be liable for potential claims even if the party took place at a separate venue and outside working hours.
Whilst no one wants to be seen as a 'party pooper', it is important that employers are not deemed to be encouraging or condoning inappropriate conduct.
Most claims that reach tribunals arise from employees drinking too much. Over-consumption of alcohol can lead to violence and sexual harassment, caused by employees casting aside their social inhibitions and lowering their usual standards of conduct. The fact that offensive behaviour occurs at office parties while the perpetrator is under the influence is no excuse.
Employers need to be sensible about what they arrange. Most importantly, they should limit the amount of alcohol provided and remind employees of the need to treat each other with respect.
Make Travel Arrangements
If one of your employees has clearly drunk too much at the office Christmas party and is planning to drive home, it is your responsibility. As an employer, you have a 'duty of care' toward your employees, and as it's the company's party, you need to take some responsibility. We suggest trying the following:
Christmas parties are not really about religion, but an office party is traditionally associated with the festive season. Being excluded from the fun undermines the reason for the party, and can also lead to claims if it results from a provision, criterion or practice that causes a detriment to those with a protected characteristic (for example, those who follow a religion other than Christianity).
Staff should not be pressured into attending if they do not wish to, and employers need to ensure they offer non-alcoholic drinks and food that everyone can eat. If they only provide wine and sausage rolls, they could find themselves with problems.
In terms of choosing a venue, employers need to bear in mind how accessible it is for disabled employees, and if partners are to be invited then those in same-sex relationships need to be treated in the same way as other employees.
Off the premises
It is important to remember that employment laws apply even when parties take place outside the workplace. Employers may be liable for incidents of harassment that take place at work-related social events as these are still considered to be 'in the course of employment'.
Employers are potentially liable for the acts of third parties - the after-dinner speaker who tells racist and sexist jokes is the obvious example. Employers need to warn their entertainers what is not acceptable in the same way they would their own staff.
Employers have a duty to offer employees a reasonable opportunity for redress of any grievance, and such issues should be dealt with promptly. Failure to act is potentially a breach of the ACAS Code of Practice and also a breach of this implied contractual duty.
Employers also need to ensure they act consistently in all circumstances - the same rules apply to managers as they do to the rest of the workforce. Just because at the time everyone laughed at the boss's jokes does not make them any less offensive.
Pre-empt sickness absence
If you're worried about people failing to turn up for work the next day, due to hangovers, there are a few measures you can take to pre-empt this, including:
Only about a third of employers have a specific policy on behaviour at office parties and there is merit in considering implementing one. Most employers have policies on equal opportunities, harassment and bullying and employers can use these to warn employees about their behaviour prior to the event.
Employers need to make it clear to employees what constitutes unacceptable behaviour at office parties. The effect is two-fold: it serves as a reminder that staff need to treat each other with respect, and a prior warning about the consequences is likely to render any subsequent employer action more reasonable.
Examples of unacceptable behaviour might include excessive alcohol consumption, fighting and use of inappropriate language or physical contact.
The key is doing this without sounding like a killjoy. Everyone wants to have fun and nobody really appreciates being warned about their conduct. But employers need to consider the inherent risks and ensure they have sown a seed of sensibility in advance.
William. B. Rose & Associates LLP
54 Welsh Row
0845 074 5970