Legal advice - the office party

As the festive season approaches, many look forward to a fun filled office party; staff expect to let their hair down and enjoy the firm’s hospitality. However, a recent report has revealed that of the 3,500 employers polled, the fear of legal claims has forced 83% to cancel the Christmas Party. Alcohol, mistletoe and employment law do not mix, but if all reasonable steps are taken to prevent drunken misconduct, tasteless jokes and inappropriate behaviour, bosses need not banish Christmas.

We have compiled a little list of things to consider before opening a free bar after work on the night before Christmas:

In the ‘course of employment’:

You need to remember that you are responsible for your staffs’ actions committed in the course of employment, which I’m afraid, will make you liable at company organised events, including a works Christmas party held outside working hours and away from the office.

The venue:

Regardless of where the event is held, you remain responsible – outside venues should be viewed as extensions of the workplace. Therefore, ensure the setting has disabled facilities if applicable and meet current health and safety requirements. If the party is to be held at the office ensure you have the appropriate liability insurance – especially if guests are invited.

Lunch parties or after-work drinks:

A survey of 1000 workers in 2004 found that a quarter of respondents admitted to phoning in sick the day after the office Christmas bash. Therefore be sure to re-iterate to staff that they will be expected to turn up for work the following day as normal, without a hangover. Likewise, if you hold a lunch party make it clear beforehand if staff will be required to return to work afterwards. You must ensure that any employees who have been drinking are capable to carrying out their duties without risking their health and safety or that of others. Note: a Christmas lunch can be a good idea if you have employees with childcare responsibilities.

Employment policies:

Before the party you will need to establish some ground rules. Circulate a memo advising staff that whilst alcohol will be available, they will be expected to uphold all other standards of normal workplace conduct. Firmly dismiss the notion that ‘anything goes’, stressing misconduct, for example: excessive drunkenness, use of illegal drugs, harassment, violence, serious verbal abuse or assault, will inevitably result in disciplinary action. Ensure all employees have understood your latest Equal Opportunities, Anti-Harassment, Drug and Alcohol policies – pin fresh copies up on the notice board and direct all employees to read them again.

Harassment:

Unfortunately, the most likely claim to result from a work-related party is harassment. Tribunals have held that leering, sexist remarks and questions about a person’s sex life can all be forms of harassment. Whilst you will not be able to monitor everything that goes on or is said at the party, you or another senior manager should supervise events and be prepared to take employees to one side or ask them to leave if they become rude, provocative, aggressive or start acting in any way inappropriately. Note: all discrimination legislation contains a definition of harassment so if a claim is brought against the Company there is no limit to the amount of compensation that you will be forced to pay.

Making promises:

Avoid, at all costs, talk or indeed promises of promotions and pay rises. You may be forced by a tribunal to honour any promises made that are construed to be more than a general expression of intention or aspiration.

Mistletoe:

Ban, confiscate, even destroy every sprig of mistletoe within range of your workplace. Staff should never feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated and there is no faster way to create an offensive and potentially unlawful environment than to encourage the sexual advances of staff. Don’t forget: one-off incidents of unwanted conduct can amount to harassment if they are sufficiently serious.

Alcohol:

If alcohol is provided, endeavour to keep a check on how much is being drunk, bearing in mind that a free bar encourages excessive drinking. Additionally, if the party is held at an outside venue, liaise with the organisers to ensure bar staff do not continue to serve those who have already had too much and decide how to deal with intoxicated employees. Always ensure there are plenty of soft drinks.

Dealing with misconduct:

Investigate and promptly take appropriate action in response to any complaints of harassment, injury or discrimination. Even if the Christmas break interrupts or delays the implementation of full disciplinary procedures, do not neglect to deal with the matter on your return. Failure to deal adequately with a grievance could lead to claims for breach of contract, sexual discrimination, stress related illness or constructive dismissal. Tribunals take a very dim view of employers who overlook their responsibilities for employee well-being and protection at social events.

Drinking and Driving:

Do not let staff drink and drive. You have a duty to positively stop an intoxicated employee getting behind the wheel of a car - take their keys and call a cab. Before the event consider organising or providing transport to ensure staff get home safely.

Entertainers:

Warn entertainers to tow the line and don’t be afraid to quickly whisk them from centre stage if their humour could be construed as objectionable. In 1996 an employer was held to be liable for the harassment of its staff by a speaker.

Common law:

On top of all your Employment law responsibilities, is anything should go wrong as a result of your breach of duty to take reasonable care of an employee or a guest, you could be held to be guilty of negligence under Common law.

Non-Christian employees:

It is important to remember that not all employees are likely to celebrate Christmas – staff who do not wish to attend the festivities should not feel ostracised. Some organisations have re-named their Christmas party a ‘winter’ party to encourage all employees to attend.

Alternative yuletide incentives:

If trying to organise what is meant to be a fun get-to-together at the end of the year to say thank-you for your employee’s hard work is proving to be too much of a headache there are a whole host of alternative ways to show your appreciation to staff – theatre tickets or a fun day away from the office. Christmas bonuses are also normally well received – they could be aligned to either corporate or an individuals performance, although be careful not to create a situation where staff come to expect a bonus and inadvertently create a contractually binding arrangement

 

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