The office Christmas party – a headache for employers?

It’s approaching that time of year again! Everyone is starting to get into the Christmas spirit and that long awaited office party is just around the corner – so how do you make sure it all goes off without a hitch?

Understandably as an employer, you don’t want to risk being seen as the archetypal Scrooge by talking about disciplinary issues before anyone has even had as much as a mince pie. However, it is becoming increasingly important for employers to take steps to minimise the risk of a nasty New Year hangover in the form of an Employment Tribunal claim.

Harassment and discrimination

Most employers are aware that they can be held responsible for the conduct of their employees whilst they’re working for them. But most may not realise that this can extend to a work party, even if this takes place away from work.

This means that any remarks or gestures made at parties which offend other party guests could be held to be the employer’s responsibility, if the offended employees alleges harassment or discrimination.

It’s easy to imagine this type of thing happening at an end of year party, when employees looking to blow off some steam after a long year end up having one (or perhaps a few!) too many drinks at the work Christmas party.

So how can you defend yourself against this? By taking all reasonable steps to prevent it from happening, such as by having in place anti-harassment and equal opportunities policies which make it clear what types of conduct are considered unacceptable and making sure employees are aware of and have perhaps been trained on such policies.

Where, despite taking these steps, unacceptable conduct still occurs, you will need to rely on a clear disciplinary policy which set out how such incidents will be investigated and dealt with.

Employers should also make sure that the arrangements they make for Christmas parties don’t inadvertently discriminate against any particular groups of attendees, such as people who do not drink or who have particular dietary requirements for religious or cultural reasons, or people with disabilities who may have difficulty accessing venues. Employers should also ensure that any entertainment booked for the party isn’t likely to offend anyone at the party – so make sure you vet the comedian’s material first!

Disciplinary and grievances

It doesn’t take Santa’s best elf to realise that increased alcohol consumption at Christmas parties creates a greater risk of unacceptable behaviour by employees as well as absences in the days after. The important thing for an employer is to realise that they will never be able to remove this risk entirely and therefore their focus should be on how they deal with issues when they do arise. As always, consistency is key.

First and foremost, any potential misconduct should be investigated thoroughly and any disciplinary process which follows should be held in accordance with the ACAS Code on Disciplinary and Grievance Procedures, as well as your own disciplinary policy. Likewise, any grievances which arise out of events at a Christmas party should also be dealt with consistently. This is important because downplaying or overlooking events at a party may set a precedent for any similar events which occur in the workplace in the future.

Social media

The popularity of social media, when combined with the types of incident referred to above, may also pose challenges for employers. As a general rule, anything said or done via social media which relates to your business or employees and which, if said in person would be considered misconduct, should be treated the same as if it were done offline i.e. a full investigation under your disciplinary or grievance procedures.

Social media posts may also amount to breaches of specific policies on social media or computer use. As with most things, prevention is better than the cure so if you have concerns about employees’ use of social media, it is a good idea to make sure your policies are up to date and that employees are reminded about what constitutes unacceptable behaviour.

Enjoy yourself!

Hopefully you’ll never need to worry about any of the issues mentioned above affecting your end of year celebrations. However, if you do ever need anyone to help take the stress out of the situation for you (so that you can focus on the important things!), please do not hesitate to contact our Employment Team by telephone on 0161 926 9969 or by email employment@mlplaw.co.uk.

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