All I want for Christmas: Employment law issues arising from the office Christmas party
The street decorations are up, a series of seasonal adverts are on the telly, and Slade can be heard everywhere you go: it’s Christmas! And for employers, this means the annual headache of the Christmas party and the various issues that come with it. By knowing the risks and taking steps to reduce them, employers can ensure that the Christmas party is not a launch pad for grievances and/or employment tribunal claims.
The conduct of staff members at an office party is generally considered to be in the course of their employment, even if the party takes place off the company’s premises and outside of working hours. Managers are therefore still responsible for the conduct of their staff, and should ensure that their staff are aware of the level of behaviour expected of them. Employers should ensure that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent misconduct; a sensible starting point is to dismiss, from the outset, the notion that “anything goes” at the Christmas party.
In addition to preventative measures, employers should have in place a fair procedure to consider any complaints from staff members and staff should be reminded of the procedure in advance of the party. Any failure to deal with a grievance properly and in accordance with the company’s procedures may result in a claim to the employment tribunal, whether on the grounds of discrimination, harassment or a breach of contract.
Most issues that arise from Christmas parties stem from the provision of alcohol. If staff are expected to come into work the following day, be sure to notify staff that they can be disciplined for any unauthorised absence. That said, if staff are expected to return to work immediately after an event and alcohol has been provided by the employer, it may be unfair to dismiss an employee by reason of misconduct due to the fact that the employee is under the influence. Encouraging or condoning consumption of alcohol during the party will be a mitigating factor if the matter is taken to an employment tribunal. Ensuring that sufficient non-alcoholic beverages are available to those under eighteen, and those not wishing to have alcohol, especially if this is on religious grounds, will help to avoid causing offence and encourage sensible drinking. Focusing the party around a meal or entertainment rather than the provision of drinks will ensure that those who do not drink alcohol feel included.
Keep in mind that an employer’s duty of care extends beyond the Christmas party, and as such employers should not allow anyone who has consumed alcohol to drive when leaving the party – provision of buses or coaches or preparing for the additional costs of taxis may help.
Managers will sometimes feel the effects of alcohol too, and may make a drunken promise to an employee, such as a pay rise or a bonus. Whilst such a promise may not always be enforceable by the employee, employers run the risk of an employment tribunal claim if such a promise is made.
Be sure to consider all elements of the party, such as the venue, the food and the entertainment, to ensure that offence is not caused and that reasonable steps have been taken to cater for all employees. For example, employers may face claims from employees if there is offensive material in a booked entertainer’s act. As such, employers should be sure to book suitable entertainment which will not include any comments that may be deemed as discriminatory or harassment. Meat-free options should be provided for vegetarians and those with restricted diets due to their religion, and every effort should be made to ensure the venue is accessible for any employee with a disability.
Christmas decorations should also be tasteful so as not to cause offence; mistletoe can be dangerous for obvious reasons. The most common decorations – trees, tinsel, lights, etc. – are traditional rather than religious, and so are unlikely to be offensive, and even a nativity scene or Christian symbols on cards or decorations are unlikely to cause offense. However, try to keep in mind the sensitivities of your employees, and handle any complaint seriously and fairly. Oh and make sure those Secret Santa gifts are tasteful and inoffensive.
The most important thing is to ensure that all staff enjoy themselves without overstepping these boundaries, and that all employees feel included in the festivities regardless of their religious beliefs. Ensuring that the risks have been considered and prepared for, and that there are suitable policies and procedures in place, will leave employers free to enjoy the party rather than worry about what the following day may bring.
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