Christmas lights have been switched on, decorations are up, seasonal adverts are on the television and Slade is blasted out all over! Employees will by now know what format their Christmas party is going to take – employers often dread it because it hits their pockets and they are often left to deal with the various issues that arise out of it. By knowing the risks and taking steps to reduce them, employers can ensure it is a harmonious event for all.
Employers are liable for the acts of their employees that are performed in the ‘course of their employment.’ The conduct of staff members at an office party is generally considered to be in the course of their employment, even if the party takes place away from the company’s premises and outside of working hours. Managers are therefore still responsible for the conduct of their staff and should ensure that they are aware of the level of behaviour expected of them and that employment policies that apply during working hours still apply to the party. Employers should ensure that they have taken all reasonable steps to prevent misconduct; a sensible starting point is to dismiss, from the outset, the notion that ‘anything goes’ at the Christmas party.
It is worth noting that employers are also responsible for the actions of third parties – namely entertainers or after dinner speakers. Employers need to warn their entertainers as to what is not acceptable in the same way they would their own staff.
Employers should have in place a fair procedure to consider any complaints from employees and employees should be reminded of the procedure in advance of the party. Any failure to deal with a grievance properly and in accordance with the company’s procedures may result in a claim to the employment tribunal, whether on the grounds of discrimination, harassment or a breach of contract.
Many of the issues that arise from Christmas parties stem from employees drinking too much. If employees are expected to come into work the following day, they need to be aware that they can be disciplined for any unauthorised absence. That said, if they are expected to return to work immediately after an event and alcohol has been provided by the employer, it may be unfair to dismiss an employee by reason of misconduct due to the fact that the employee is under the influence. Encouraging or condoning consumption of alcohol during the party will be a mitigating factor if the matter is taken to an employment tribunal. Ensuring that sufficient non-alcoholic beverages are available to those under eighteen, and those not wishing to have alcohol, especially if this is on religious grounds, will help to avoid causing offence and encourage sensible drinking. Focusing the party around a meal or entertainment rather than the provision of drinks will ensure that those who do not drink alcohol feel included.
Keep in mind that an employer’s duty of care extends beyond the Christmas party, and as such employers should not allow anyone who has consumed alcohol to drive when leaving the party – you may want to provide contacts numbers for local taxis or provide buses or coaches to take them home.
It is important to consider whether reasonable steps have been taken to ensure that on every level the party caters for all employees – such as the venue, the food, and the entertainment. As such, employers should be sure to book suitable entertainment which will not include any comments that may be deemed as discriminatory or harassment. Meat-free options should be provided for vegetarians and those with restricted diets due to their religion, and every effort should be made to ensure the venue is accessible for any employee with a disability.
The most important thing is to ensure that all staff enjoy themselves without overstepping these boundaries, and that all employees feel included in the festivities regardless of their religious beliefs. Ensuring that the risks have been considered and prepared for, and that there are suitable policies and procedures in place, will leave employers free to enjoy the party rather than worry about what the following day may bring.
The second most important thing is to ensure that the fine line between sowing a seed of sensibility and being a kill joy is trodden carefully!