Avoiding a Christmas party hangover

17 December 2012

No doubt, by the time that you read this article, you will have already done your Christmas shopping and tunes by Slade and Wizzard are going round in your head until they drive you mad. But, however much you like to forget some things, other things should be remembered...

From an employment law perspective, you need to keep in mind that the Christmas party is essentially just an extension of the workplace and should in a sense be treated as such. The party may take place outside of the workplace and out of hours, but an employer will remain potentially liable for the actions of its staff, while staff should ensure they behave appropriately and consistent with their employer’s codes of conduct and policies on behaviour in the workplace. This, in a charity, is no different from a commercial institution.  

Potential liabilities arising

Most concerning from an employer’s perspective, is that it will be potentially liable for acts of discrimination or harassment by its staff. At a Christmas party, where employees get carried away with the atmosphere, and possibly one too many drinks, many do and say things they would not otherwise do. The most likely form of discrimination or harassment is sexual, but equally, the discrimination or harassment could be on a number of other prohibited grounds including race, disability, age, sexual orientation or religion or belief.

Such behaviour could lead to; a claim for compensation for the discriminatory action against both the employer and the employee responsible (such compensation being potentially unlimited); time and effort spent by management in dealing with any grievance and/or disciplinary arising from the incident; and damage to workplace relationships which damage productivity in the longer term.

Incidents such as these are unfortunately all too common. Each January, as certain as night follows day, we will receive calls from clients that begin, “There was an unfortunate event at our Christmas party...”. Without wishing to maintain a stereotype, it usually involves more senior males holding inappropriate conversations with more junior females, but not exclusively. And it does not always have to contain an element of discrimination or harassment. Incidents of other types of inappropriate behaviour are just as common, such as drink fuelled aggression, with or without the actual physical violence, often resulting from the releasing of tensions that may have built up over long periods of time in the workplace.

There is a tendency to think “oh, that will never happen at our do”, at least until it does.

Practical steps to take

So to avoid, as far as is possible, the Christmas party being ruined by any unfortunate incidents we would recommend to employers the following steps:

- Ensure that you have an equal opportunities/anti-harassment policy in place;

- Shortly before the Christmas party, remind employees of the existence of the policy and confirm that it applies equally to business events outside of the workplace and outside of office hours;

- Tell employees to enjoy themselves and have a good time, but that inappropriate behaviour will not be tolerated and could result in disciplinary action;

- Consider limiting the bar tab. It is arguably irresponsible to provide limitless quantities of free alcohol to staff and a limitless free bar would not assist in defending any legal action resulting from an act carried out by a member of staff that was aggravated by alcohol consumption

- Consider appointing a senior, responsible employee to stay sober, monitor behaviour and step in if necessary.

But have fun!

Members of the SGH Martineau Employment Group often have to be dragged off the dance floor at the end of an evening, so there is certainly no “Bah, humbug!” from us when it comes to the Christmas party, just as long as everyone is able to enjoy it.

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Tom Long

This article was supplied by SGH Martineau Solicitors. SGH Martineau is one of the UK’s leading independent law firms, providing a full range of commercial legal services from its offices in Birmingham and London. Tom Long is a senior associate solicitor in SGH Martineau’s Employment Team.

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