News & Views

‘Tis the season to be wary

BY Paman Singh
Employment law
BG Purple

It’s coming. That’s right. That terrifying, gasp-inducing, wild and unpredictable event that is the annual office Christmas party.

Possibly one of the biggest reasons that employers toss fervently in their beds late at night.

In order to save the pennies for the bargains in January, it is important that employers give the festive season due consideration. Law at Work’s legal adviser Paman Singh is offering an early seasonal gift; how to navigate the holiday period, to ensure that the only headaches are hangover related.

Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree

It’s common for most employers to treat staff to an opportunity to let their hair down and indulge in a few festive drinks. Such events are morale boosting and foster a positive workplace environment. Employers should be aware though that they could be liable for an employee’s actions when they have had a little too much eggnog. This was the case when one male employee sexually harassed female colleagues and told his managers to go forth and procreate, but was subsequently found to have been unfairly dismissed because it was “contradictory and self-defeating for an employer to…allow the unlimited service of free alcohol” while expecting normal standards of behaviour to apply.  

It would be wise therefore, to supply plenty of non-alcoholic alternatives or even consider enforcing a limit. You should also consider the timing of parties - lunchtime or midweek parties may result in slightly worse-for-wear employees (not) performing their duties. It would be unfair to expect a Christmas miracle from ‘merry’ employees in relation to their performance and any disciplinary action could be potentially unfair as a consequence.

All I Want For Christmas Is You

Despite what a glut of Christmas movies have taught us, grabbing a colleague, sweeping them gallantly off their feet, leaning in close to them, declaring your undying love in a breathless Liv Tyler style whisper and sealing the deal with a romantic kiss in a workplace setting might well be inappropriate, or worse, unwanted.

Employers can protect themselves against sexual harassment complaints by ensuring that staff are well aware of equal opportunities and/or bullying and harassment policies. It is also worth noting that if a claim is raised, employers might not be held liable for the actions of their employees if they have arranged adequate regular equal opportunities training for staff.

Over recent years, more and more employers have begun to put a policy on workplace social events that sets out acceptable standards of behaviour at a party as well as any sanctions for breaches. Lawyers are not exempt from acting foolishly. In one case a female solicitor settled her case for £1 million after a colleague told her she had “great baps”.

Similarly, gently reminding staff that inappropriate Secret Santa gifts will not be tolerated - nobody wants to get sexy underwear from their boss, or worse, a picture of your boss modelling said underwear. In general, humour in a gift is well received, but intended good humour doesn’t always translate. 

Happy Christmas (War is Over)

Remember that employers can still be liable even if the party is held off-site and out of normal working hours. If you feel that a policy on workplace social events is not required, consider putting a Christmas Party Statement in place, with a designated supervisor who can inform all employees of the repercussions of festive fisticuffs. In the workplace setting, the first rule of Christmas Party Fight Club is definitely not to engage in Fight Club.

Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

Whilst it is the time of the year to give presents, beware managers who get caught up in the merriment and spirit who blithely offer promotions and pay rises. In one case, a tribunal warned that a manager’s comments to this effect could be interpreted by a judge to be a contractually binding promise, as the event is still legally an extension of the workplace.

One Horse (powered) Open Sleigh

Whilst it is not fully the responsibility of the employer to make sure that their staff get home safely after the Christmas party, there is an implied duty of care towards employees in the course of their employment, and as we have already seen, the Christmas party comes under this definition. For example, if a party is arranged offsite in a remote location then an employer may be liable if an employee is involved in an accident due to driving whilst drunk.

An employer could take steps such as hiring transport, providing taxi numbers, allowing those who are driving free soft drinks or sending around a memo beforehand to minimise any risk.

O Come All Ye Facebookers

Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, the list goes on and on. Consumers are able to live stream events for the world to watch and such user generated content often goes viral. It goes without saying then, that photographs taken during the party and uploaded to social media can be problematic for employers. It ought to be made clear to employees that photos that may case embarrassment or bring bad publicity should not be uploaded to their accounts as well as ensuring that they respect the privacy of colleagues. As much as you may feel a co-worker is the next Rhianna, they may actually be the less talented (if such a thing exists) Cheeky Girl. An unwitting YouTube performance could lead to a serious workplace dispute, drawing in allegations of bullying.

A Christmas party is traditionally a well-established opportunity for fun and as long as effective planning and policies are in place, there is no reason why it shouldn’t remain so. Happy holidays!

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