By Tina Chander, partner and head of the employment team at Wright Hassall
As we enter the final stretch of 2019, the nation’s attention will soon turn to the end of year celebrations, with businesses preparing for their Christmas parties.
It’s an exciting prospect for most colleagues, as it gives them the chance to celebrate another busy and (hopefully) successful year with some casual drinks in a relaxed social environment.
However, this excitement can quickly spill over, so it’s worth reminding colleagues that the Christmas party is essentially an extension of the workplace and the same rules and expectations apply.
Although the party may take place outside of the workplace and normal office hours, there remains the risk that an employer will be liable for the actions of its staff.
Unfortunately, consuming high volumes of alcohol can be the catalyst for serious legal issues, with incidents of discrimination or harassment not unheard of.
The availability of alcohol and the relaxed social environment can soon see parties take a less festive turn, with sexual harassment usually the most common problem at one of these events.
Accusations of discrimination on the grounds of age, race or sexual orientation can also occur – I’m sure we can all picture the type of unsavoury scenario described.
If there are any existing workplace tensions then excessive drinking can strain these further, as inebriated individuals decide to raise the issue, which can escalate into a verbal or physical confrontation.
This type of unacceptable behaviour could lead to claims for potentially unlimited compensation, not to mention the significant amount of time and effort senior management must invest into the subsequent investigation and disciplinary process.
If the back-to-work blues weren’t already bad enough in January, these anxieties can be enhanced when employment lawyers are called to deal with an incident from the office Christmas party.
There are several steps that organisations should follow to avoid becoming that client:
• Don’t leave anybody out – every member of staff should be invited to the Christmas party, regardless of whether they are ill or on leave, as not doing so could result in claims of discrimination
• When employees can bring partners, be sure not to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation and don’t assume all partners will be of the opposite sex
• Ensure that you have an equal opportunities/anti-harassment policy in place
• Remind workers before the party that the same code of conduct applies, and that any instances of harassment, discrimination or violence will not be tolerated under any circumstances
• Tell employees to enjoy themselves and have a good time, but remind them that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary action
• If hired entertainers tell any racist, sexist or offensive jokes and the employer does not fulfil its duty to protect employees from this unwanted conduct, it could be liable for harassment claims
• Consider limiting the bar tab. Providing limitless amounts of alcohol to employees, without monitoring who is drinking what is not only irresponsible, it can also increase the likelihood of a serious issue occurring
• Consider appointing a senior, responsible employee to stay sober, monitor behaviour and step in if necessary