The Potential Pitfalls of the Office Christmas Party -

The Potential Pitfalls of the Office Christmas Party

After a hard year’s work and with the festive season upon us, most employers will be turning their attention towards organising the office Christmas party.

Each year, Employment Tribunals hear claims that arise as a result of Christmas parties, with many claims surrounding violent behaviour, discrimination and sexual harassment.

Chris Cuckney, Legal Advisor at the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), has put together some of the risks employers need to be aware of that come with office Christmas parties, and the steps that should be taken to reduce their potential liability.

The Equality Act 2010

This act gives workers and employees protection from less favourable treatment because of one of the protected characteristics.

The nine protected characteristics are: Age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation.

  • Employers should ensure they do not pick and choose which employees they invite, all employees should be invited otherwise they may be able to establish less favourable treatment.
  • Likewise, if an employee feels compelled to attend the event, they may be able to bring an indirect discrimination claim, given that for some Christmas is a religious celebration.
  • People may have specific dietary requirements because of their religion or belief and employers should, therefore, ensure they offer a suitable range of food and non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Under the Act, anything done by an employee during the course of their employment must be treated as also done by the employer. Employers need to take measures to ensure they are not held liable for acts committed by employees at the office Christmas party, even where that party takes place outside of office hours and away from the company’s premises.
  • Before the party, employers should ensure they take reasonable steps in order to prevent their own liability. Ensure they have up-to-date policies on discrimination and bullying, as well as a conduct policy that provides clear examples of the type of behaviour that will be regarded as unacceptable. Employees should be reminded that the employment policies remain in place for the duration of the party and action will be taken for any inappropriate behaviour.

Vicarious Liability

Employers can be held liable for any tort (wrongdoing) committed by an employee during the course of their employment. Some examples of tortuous acts which employers can become liable for include: physical violence, emotional distress and negligence.

Duty of Care

All employers owe a duty of care to their employees and as part of this duty, employers should take reasonable steps to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their employees. Christmas parties typically see large quantities of alcohol consumed by all. Employers should think about setting a limit on the amount of free alcohol they will allow their employees to consume over the course of the event as well as ensuring food and non-alcoholic drinks are available.

It should be noted that the employer’s duty of care applies equally after the party as it does during it, employers should ensure that employees are able to get him safely and do not drink and drive.

Disciplinary and Grievance procedures

If the next day is a working day, employers should make it clear to all employees that they are expected at work and any absence as a result of alcohol consumed at the Christmas party will not be tolerated and will result in disciplinary action. Employers should first ensure that their disciplinary policy is fully up to date and illustrates the consequences of absence through alcohol consumption.

Before employers take action they will need to be sure that the absence is for alcohol-related reasons and they are not disciplining an employee who is genuinely sick.

Where employees raise a complaint or grievance in relation to something that occurred at the office Christmas party, employers should ensure they take the complaint seriously and don’t simply put it down to the merriment of the occasion. Employers should ensure they have documented complaints and grievance procedures in place before the party and, when following this procedure, investigate any subsequent complaints thoroughly.

The employer’s actions

As well as being liable for the acts of their employees, employers are also liable for their own actions. Employment Tribunals have heard cases in the past concerning things said by employers to employees during an office Christmas party.

Employers should make it clear that, although the aim of the party is for everyone to enjoy themselves, they must conduct themselves in a responsible manner for the duration of the party. Employers should also monitor the behaviour of their employees during the course of the party and put an end to any inappropriate behaviour as soon as they are made aware of it.

Source: Recruitment & Employment Confederation (www.rec.uk.com)

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